Scientists hail leap in cancer fight
Scientists think they have discovered why cancer spreads from one part of the body to another, and say it should be "relatively easy" to stop the process.
Experiments carried out by a team at University College London uncovered what causes the disease to migrate.
In many cases, death from cancer is not caused by the primary tumour, but the secondary growth.
Scientists found that diseased cells are attracted to healthy cells, which then try to move away from the cancerous cell.
However, the cancer cell continues to follow the healthy cell, causing the disease to spread through the body.
"Nobody knew how this happened, and now we believe we have uncovered it," said Prof Roberto Mayor, who led the team. "If that is the case, it will be relatively easy to develop drugs that interfere with this interaction."
While the team has not identified what causes cancer in the first place, the research, published in Nature Cell Biology, offers hope of new treatments for a disease that claims 150,000 lives every year in Britain.
The key to the findings was understanding why cancerous cells attach themselves to healthy cells in the first place. Scientists did this by mimicking what happens by using comparable types of cell and observing their behaviour.
"We use the analogy of the donkey and the carrot to explain this behaviour: the donkey follows the carrot, but the carrot moves away when approached by the donkey," said Prof Mayor.
"The findings suggest an alternative way in which cancer treatments might work in the future if therapies can be targeted at the process of interaction between malignant and healthy cells to stop cancer cells from spreading and causing secondary tumours.
"Most cancer deaths are not due to the formation of the primary tumour, instead people die from secondary tumours originating from the first malignant cells, which are able to travel and colonise vital organs of the body such as the lungs or the brain."
Eric Theveneau, another member of the team, added: "These cells are very similar in their behaviour to cancer cells and this could be analogous to the cancer system."
The next step, he added, would entail medical researchers using their findings to gain a better understanding of how cancer cells behave.
Dr Kat Arney, the science information manager at Cancer Research UK, welcomed the findings, but advised caution. (© Daily Telegraph, London)