Researchers trace mechanisms of cancer spread

In collaboration with the Press Association

An international study has discovered what could be an important process in how some cancers are able to spread to the bones, a process called metastasis.

Cancers that can metastasise are much more difficult to treat.

For 120 years scientists have thought it likely that bones - which are particularly prone to metastases - contain molecules that attract cancer cells.

Now researchers studying mice at the University of Toronto and the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) have identified a protein produced in bones, named RANKL, which appears to communicate with breast, prostate and skin cancer cells, encouraging them to spread.

Cancer spreading to the bones is "a huge problem" as "metastases trigger severe cancer pain" said professor Josef Penninger, director of the IMBA.

The research teams also found that treating the mice with a drug called osteoprotogerin, which blocks RANKL's activity, significantly reduced cancer spread.

However, the researchers emphasised that the results are preliminary and would require much further testing before they could be considered suitable for clinical trials.

"Once cancers spread to other parts of the body they become much more difficult to treat so finding ways to prevent this spread is an important focus for cancer research today," commented Cancer Research UK's Dr Emma Knight

"Discoveries like this show just how important laboratory research is if we are to unearth promising new targets for future cancer treatments," she added.

Find out more about metastasis