This potentially path-breaking cure for breast cancer involves converting cancer cells to fat
Scientists at the University of Basel have found a way to stop metastasis and force cancer cells to become fat cells.
Scientists at the University of Basel have found a way to to stop metastasis and force cancer cells to become fat cells
They did this by using a new combination of an existing cancer drug and a popular diabetes medicine
Globally, breast cancer accounts for 25.4% of new cancer cases in women in 2018
Scientists have found a rather bizarre way to treat breast cancer - by turning cancer cells into fat.
If the idea scales, the implications will be huge.
Consider the data: Globally, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women - accounting for 25.4% of new cancer cases in women in 2018. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, around 2.1 million women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. In India, 12.7 of every 100,000 women with breast cancer die every year.
How does the cancer spread?
Cancer usually starts as a tumour or group of tumours in one site or organ in the body. When it spreads to the other organs, this process is called metastasis.
Simply put, metastasis involves three processes - invasion or local infiltration of tumour cells into the neighbouring region, extravasation or movement of cancer cells out of the blood and into a new organ and intravasation or the movement of cancer cells into the blood of the new organ.
Researchers have found that in breast cancer, an unusual transition of epithelial (or outermost layer) cells into mesenchymal cells (EMT) triggers metastasis. Think of mesenchymal cells as a kind of shapeshifter that can assume the features of different cells.
Scientists are now using this cancer “plasticity” to their advantage.
How can the cancer be stopped
During the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), which triggers and sustains breast cancer metastasis), a cell becomes de-differentiated and begins to lose its properties - it starts to behave like a stem cell. This allows the cell to convert into a different type of cell. It is this property that allows the cancer cells to grow endlessly and evolve continuously.
Scientists at the University of Basel have found a way to exploit this property - cancer plasticity - to stop metastasis and force cancer cells to become fat cells. They did this by using a new combination of an existing cancer drug and a popular diabetes medicine. And they published their findings in the January issue of the renowned science journal Cancer Cell with the colourful title 'Gain Fat—Lose Metastasis: Converting Invasive Breast Cancer Cells into Adipocytes Inhibits Cancer Metastasis'.
Adipogenesis: let there be fat
Adipogenesis literally means creating fat. This is quite hard to achieve - which probably explains why no one had done it so far.
To put it simply, the scientists at Basel tinkered with the Transforming Growth Factor-Beta (TGF-β) which is responsible for cell differentiation and cell proliferation in the body. By preventing TGF-β induced MEK/ERK signalling, they enabled seamless adipogenesis. Mitogen-activated protein kinase/ERK kinase (MEK) and extracellular-signal-regulated kinase (ERK) are proteins that regulate cell function.
The world over, there is an understandable urgency to improve screening methods as well as treatment protocols. From nanotechnology to the use of artificial intelligence to identify and personalise medication based on the patient’s genealogy, cancer research is making some big strides. In July, scientists at found that chemotherapy medicine combined with fat molecules just worked better - the tumours ate it up.
Even in this context, the cancer-to-fat research is path-breaking. The reasons are obvious - imagine if we could stop the cancer from spreading, we would be improving quality of life and longevity for millions of women in India and around the world.
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