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Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

  • Zlatica Hoke

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process.

Metastasis occurs as primary tumor cells leave the tumor, get into the blood stream, pass through the circulatory system, and then find new tissue to colonize.

Belgian scientists at a research institute of the Université Catholique de Louvain say they have discovered a way to prevent the metastasis of primary tumors from breast and melanomic cancer cells in mice.

"When you have few metastases, this is still manageable for therapy. But when you have a lot of metastases all around your body, you are good for palliative care, it's sad to say so. So what we've found is a treatment able to prevent metastases. Of course, this offers a high hope for patients which are at risk for metastases," said Professor Pierre Sonveaux of the Université Catholique de Louvain.

Cancer specialists say metastasis is a complicated process about which much is still unknown.

"For instance, cells have to change their shapes in order to metastasize, and we don't understand basic questions about how cells can change their shape," said the Institute of Cancer Research’s Chris Bakal.

The Belgian team led by Sonveaux has found the mechanism by which cells can control changes caused at least in part by free radicals. The free radical involved in the metastacism of tumor cells is superoxide. Tests in mice on melanoma and breast cancer cells showed that administering an antioxidant stopped the production of superoxide. That, in turn, prevented cell changes that would lead to metastasis.

"In some of these models, we found 100 percent response. It means that we prevented by 100 percent the dissemination of metastases. When you are a scientist and when you find this, you just fall on the ground. This is a very nice result," said Sonveaux.

The research, published in the journal Cell Reports, has drawn praise from other scientists. Bakal said the findings could lead to the development of a therapy to prevent the spread of metastatic cancer cells by blocking pathways to free radicals.

"What it suggests is that by targeting these pathways, these free radical pathways, it could represent a way, a therapeutic avenue, by which to inhibit metastasis, which we weren't necessarily clear of before. So if we lower the amount of free radicals in metastatic cells, it suggests we could prevent metastasis," said Bakal.

Belgian researchers say they now want to find out if this strategy can be applied to prevent metastasis of other tumors, such as colon cancer, lung cancer and prostate cancer. The next step would be developing the necessary drugs and starting clinical trials on cancer patients.