Signalling molecule promotes breast cancer spread

In collaboration with the Press Association

A study in the journal Cell has shed new light on a molecule that cells use to communicate with one another, and its role in cancer spread - a process known as metastasis.

Researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre (MSKCC) looked at how cells communicate using signalling molecules called cytokines, which direct activities such as cell growth and movement.

They found that a particular cytokine, transforming growth factor alpha (TGF-alpha) - which normally suppresses tumours - can actually be used by cancer cells to enhance their ability to spread.

Analysis revealed that TGF-alpha is present in high levels in around half of all breast tumours, and these tumours tend to be more aggressive and more likely to spread to the lungs.

The researchers also carried out tests on mice, which revealed that TGF-alpha can prompt breast cancer cells to make another cytokine called angiopoietin-like 4 (ANGPTL4), which helps the cells to spread through the bloodstream.

ANGPTL4 is used by some cancer cells to break down the thin blood vessels in the lung and enter the lung tissue.

Senior author Dr Joan Massagu, chairman of the Cancer Biology and Genetics Programme at MSKCC, said: "Our work shows that TGF-alpha enhances human breast cancer metastasis and reveals how tumour cells learn to exploit cytokines by making them work as a relay system to promote the spread of breast cancer."

Lead author David Padua, a graduate student in Dr Massagu's lab, commented: "Deciphering how cancer cells take advantage of these cytokines is essential for developing therapies that can prevent this process.

"Because cytokines act outside of cells they can be more easily targeted by drugs that block their activity," he added.

The researchers are now hoping to find out whether TGF-alpha and ANGPTL4 are involved in other types of tumours and believe ANGPTL4 may be a possible target for anti-cancer therapies.