Milestones are going to be hit. Breakthroughs will be made. The more scientists uncover the way cancer spreads — in a process called “metastasis” — the closer we’re coming to developing new therapies that can stop it.
Until recently, scientists have only had a rudimentary understanding of metastasis, which is a complicated process that involves genes splitting, altering, and spreading. It’s tough because one metastasis (say, breast cancer spreading to the lung) is different than the next (stomach cancer spreading to the bone). It is the metastasis that kills, more than any one tumor.
Usually cancer will start in an organ, and the real trouble happens if a cancerous cell changes shape, squeezes through dense tissue, and finds the bloodstream. From there, it can go anywhere in the body.
There is a lot more involved in the process after that, but it’s a touch complicated and depends on the area of the body where the cell ends up. Lately, scientists have understood that metastasis involves many processes rather than one event, and they’ve investigated each step. This has led to many new fields of study that could pave the way to real cancer treatment options. All of these are ideas that we can tailor therapy toward:
— The idea that the environment of the invaded organ influences metastasis. The less resistance the organ gives, the easier it will be for cancer. We’re investigating what events in an organ give cancer an easier time right as it arrives. Example: white blood cells don’t actually battle the cancer, but in fact help tumors progress.
— Cancer often spreads from bone. When bone breaks down, it releases factors that fuel cancer. Some patients are being given osteoporosis drugs to prevent bone breakdown to see if the cancerous cycle can be stopped.
— Some people’s bodies may be more tumor friendly than others. Could a blood test one day predict your level of risk for metastasis? Could we then customize cancer treatment?
— We’re closing in on DNA predicting. We know of certain genes that cause an increased risk for metastasis. Researchers are searching for genes called “master regulators.”
— Stem cells are big. Cancer stem cells may be the culprits behind all metastasis, explaining why millions of cancer cells spread but only a select few actually stick and cause a tumor. These would be the stem cells.
— What about that colonization, the last step of metastasis? We may, in fact, already have “micrometastases” (cancer cells that spread, but are too small to be detected) in our body right when cancer is diagnosed. Could we one day find them in order to prevent cancer’s spread?
— Some are trying to block blood vessels from developing and feeding the cancer. A cancerous cell needs to thrive in new blood vessels first. Maybe we can stop this initial step.