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Cancer breakthrough: New theory on metastasis could lead to simpler life-saving treatment

PhD student Alexandra Sneider, undergrad Vishwesh Shah, and group leader Hasini Jayatilaka
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Johns Hopkins researchers find already-approved drugs help slow spread of tumors.

When it comes to cancer, one of the last words a patient wants to hear is “metastasized.” Having a cancer is bad enough. Hearing that it has spread to other parts of the body can be devastating, raising the specter that the disease has become virtually uncontrollable.

So news out of Johns Hopkins University may come as an encouraging development, especially to those who are facing a cancer diagnosis. Hasini Jayatilaka, a post-doctoral fellow, and a team at Johns Hopkins discovered the biochemical mechanism that tells cancer cells to break off from the primary tumor and spread throughout the body. The team also found that two existing FDA-approved drugs can slow metastasis significantly.

Using a computer model rather than a petri dish, Jayatilaka found it was the tumor’s density that determined when it would break away. This runs contrary to most researchers’ belief that tumors metastasize after they reach a certain size. She made an analogy with the social behavior of human beings.

“If you look at the human population, once we become too dense in an area, we move out to the suburbs or wherever, and we decide to set up shop there,” Jayatilaka told the Baltimore Sun. “I think the cancer cells are doing the same thing.”

When that density is reached, the tumor releases two proteins called Interleukin 6 and Interleukin 8, signaling to cancer cells that things are too crowded and it’s time to move, according to the study, published in the journal Nature Communications. The team tested two drugs known to work on the Interleukin receptors to see if they would block or slow metastasis in mice, the Sun reported:

They found that using the two drugs together would block the signals from the Interleukin proteins that told the cancer cells to break off and spread, slowing — though not completely stopping — metastasis.

The drugs the team used were Tocilizumab, a rheumatoid arthritis treatment, and Reparixin, which is being evaluated for cancer treatment.

The drugs bind to the Interleukin receptors and block their signals, slowing metastasis.

The next step for the team is to test the effectiveness of the drugs in human subjects. Though results could be years off, researchers are hopeful that such drug cocktails, combined with traditional chemotherapies that shrink tumors, could lead to a significant reduction in cancer deaths. Some 90 percent of cancer deaths are caused when cancer metastasizes, the Sun noted.

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