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How a cancer gets its blood supply

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This page tells you about how a cancer gets its blood supply. There is information about


How a cancer cell grows

A cancerous tumour is made up of billions of cancer cells. The tumour gets bigger because the number of cells increases. Each individual cell goes through a growth cycle again and again, doubling into two cells each time. There is more about this in our section about cells and cancer.

Diagram showing why cancer cells need their own blood supply

As the tumour gets bigger, the centre of it gets further and further away from the blood vessels in the area where it is growing. So the centre of the tumour gets less and less of the oxygen and the other nutrients all cells need to survive. 

Without oxygen and nutrients, the cell will die. So it needs to grow it's own blood supply to survive. This is called angiogenesis. The cancer cells may be able to stimulate normal cells to produce angiogenic factors to help produce new blood vessels. Scientists researching how tumours grow think that a cancer can't grow much bigger than a pin head before it needs to develop its own blood supply. 

There is more information lower down this page about how cancers develop their own blood supply.


Carcinoma in situ

Cancer at this very early stage is often called 'carcinoma in situ'. This just means that it is very small and hasn't spread into the surrounding area, or spread anywhere else in the body. Some researchers think that cancers can get to this point and may then stop developing for many months or years.

These cancers are still so small that they will probably not be found unless they are somewhere where they are easy to spot, for example in the skin. A carcinoma in situ in an internal organ will usually be too small to pick up on a scan. The exceptions are breast cancer and cervical cancer. Carcinomas in situ can be picked up on mammograms and in cervical smears.


Blood vessel growth - angiogenesis

Normal cells can stimulate new blood vessels to grow. This happens to repair damaged tissue when wounds are healing and is called 'angiogenesis'. So, normal cells have genes that can produce proteins called angiogenic factors, which switch blood vessel growth on. They also have genes that produce proteins called antiangiogenic factors, which switch blood vessel growth off.

Researchers looking at angiogenesis think that the ability to grow new blood vessels is the big difference between a carcinoma in situ and a growing cancer. They think that a carcinoma in situ may be dormant and unable to spread for some time. But at some point it triggers tiny blood vessels called capillaries to grow. The cancer can then grow and spread into the body tissues around it.

This might happen because the cancer cells have mutated and lost antiangiogenic genes (the 'off switches' for blood vessel growth). Or because their angiogenic genes ('on switches') may have become permanently switched on. It is possible that both these things have happened and it is the balance between the two that is important. 

Once a cancer can stimulate blood vessel growth, it can grow bigger and grow more quickly. It will stimulate the growth of hundreds of new capillaries from the nearby blood vessels to bring it nutrients and oxygen.


Angiogenesis and cancer spread

Scientists also think angiogenesis may play a part in cancer spread. They have found that the newly developing capillary cells release substances that help the cancer cells to detach from the primary cancer and get into the bloodstream. This means that the cells can travel to another part of the body and begin to grow there.

Angiogenesis may also explain why a secondary cancer can appear years after the primary. Sometimes, cancer cells that have spread may not yet be able to stimulate the growth of blood vessels. A small secondary cancer could develop, similar to a carcinoma in situ. The cells continue to multiply and mutate, but the cancer cannot get much bigger.

Through mutation, the cells may suddenly be able to trigger blood vessel growth many months or even years later. A secondary cancer would then begin to grow more rapidly and could grow large enough to cause symptoms or show up on a scan.


Research into angiogenesis

A lot of research is going on into angiogenesis. The research has found that the amount of angiogenic factors is very high at the outer edges of a cancer. Anti-angiogenic drugs may stop a cancer from growing into surrounding tissue or spreading. They will probably not be able to get rid of a cancer, but may be able to shrink it or stop it growing in some cases. 

Researchers have already found some anti-angiogenic drugs that can control some types of cancer. More of these drugs are being developed and tested all the time. You can find out about trials into anti-angiogenic drugs on our clinical trials database

Examples of drugs that interfere with blood vessel growth are

Anti-angiogenic factors do not affect normal blood vessels, only newly growing ones. There is detailed information about anti-angiogenic treatment in the section about biological therapies.

Doctors are also using this research to try and predict how a cancer will behave. Some cancers have higher concentrations of blood vessels at their outer edges than other cancers. Doctors think that it may be these cancers that are more likely to spread. If they can predict that a cancer is not likely to spread, then patients can be spared the more intensive treatment.

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Updated: 24 July 2013