‘Broken switch’ inside cancer cells could help them spread

In collaboration with the Press Association

384 experiments in one

Chris Bakal

This picture shows hundreds of experiments from the study, with each square showing an image of cells from one experiment in which a single gene was turned off. Credit: Sero and Bakal, The Institute of Cancer Research. 

Scientists in London have discovered a possible way that some cancer cells invade their surroundings and escape a tumour.

If confirmed in patients, the findings could shed light on how tumours spread to other parts of the body.

"[This research] could be a crucial first step towards new treatments" – Dr Emma Smith, Cancer Research UK

It’s hoped that a better understanding of these processes could “open up exciting new avenues for cancer treatment, which may have been missed until now”, according to study leader Dr Chris Bakal from The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London. 

The study was funded by Cancer Research UK and the ICR and has been published in the journal Cell Systems

Cancer cells that have spread from the primary tumour to form other tumours in distant areas of the body are the major cause of death from cancer. 

To find out more about how cancer cells move, scientists from the ICR homed in on a molecule called YAP, which allows cells to detect changes to their shape and environment. The cells use YAP to respond to these changes by latching onto their surroundings and shuffling through the tissue. 

Cells normally have restricted movement because contact with their neighbours tells them to stay put. YAP lets them overcome this barrier by turning a particular set of genes on, but usually YAP’s activity is tightly controlled to prevent the cell from moving. 

The ICR team found that in some breast cancer cells in the lab YAP’s regulation is faulty, causing it to be continually produced. 

“Cancer cells that have spread around the body have a switch which is jammed on – allowing them to produce a molecule called YAP all the time,” said Bakal. 

“This allows them to keep growing and spreading throughout the body, ignoring the physical controls that would normally stop this happening.”

Dr Emma Smith, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said that studies such as this “could be a crucial first step towards new treatments”.

“When cancer spreads it's a lot more difficult to treat,” she added.

“This research identifies the signals that can go wrong in cancer cells, helping them to break free from the tumour.

“But further work is needed to find out if blocking these signals can stop cancer spreading in people.”

References

Sero, J. E. and Bakal, C. (2017). Multiparametric analysis of cell shape reveals that beta-PIX couples YAP activation to extracellular matrix adhesion. Cell Systems.