Why do breast cancer cells spread? Researchers discover the starting signal

Photo: Patricia Altea Manzano, Wendt Lab

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed type of cancer in the world. According to the World Cancer Observatory, our country has one of the highest rates in the world: 1 in 8 women in our country will be told at some time that they have breast cancer.

Fortunately, the 5-year survival rate for localized breast cancer in Western societies is very high, at about 99 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. But there is a warning. If the cancer has spread to parts of the body other than where the tumor originated, the 5-year survival rate drops below 30 percent. This means that more than 680,000 women die each year from metastatic breast cancer.

protein level

For breast cancer cells to become really dangerous, they do two things: they multiply locally and spread throughout the body. Until now, it is not yet clear how cancer cells transform from cells that continue to grow in situ to cells that move throughout the body and affect distant organs.

New international research involving Professors Sarah Maria Wendt, Jan Coles, Diether Lambrechts, Jean-Christophe Marin, Massimiliano Mazzoni and Peter Carmelet (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology) shows that altering levels of the PHGDH protein enables breast cancer cells to do just that. to travel through the body. Loss of PHGDH triggers a pathway that ultimately changes the chemical composition of molecules on the surface of cancer cells. This in turn facilitates cell migration.

The researchers then showed that affecting this chemical change (fluidity) in surface molecules can reduce the spread of cancer cells. Treatment of cancer cells in cell culture with a compound that inhibits this fluid reduced the number of metastatic cancer cells.

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