Cancer could be stopped in its tracks “within the next few years” after the discovery of almost a dozen genes that fuel its spread.
Experiments found blocking them was virtually a completely effective therapy for all forms of the disease – offering hope of a new generation of drugs.
When diseased cells break off and travel around the body, through the bloodstream or lymph fluid, they start a new tumour wherever they land.
The process, known medically as metastasis, is what kills as these secondary tumours are notoriously difficult to treat.
Now a groundbreaking study published in Nature Communications has identified previously-unknown therapeutic targets that could be key to preventing this.
The technique was virtually completely successful, preventing 99.5 per cent of cancer metastasis in living cells.
Dr John Lewis, of the University of Alberta, Canada, said: “The potential significance is incredible.
“Metastasis kills 90 per cent of all patients with cancer. With this study we have discovered 11 new ways to potentially end metastasis.”
His team used a unique platform it created – a shell-less bird embryo – to visualise the growth and spread of cancer cells in real time.
Then they inserted DNA carriers, or vectors, into them with a molecular tool.
These bound to specific genes and stopped the cells from activating.
They then inserted those cancer cells into the embyros and watched as they formed clusters of cancer, identifying which ones showed properties of being non-metastatic.
Lead author Dr Konstantin Stoletov said: “When we found compact colonies of cancer, that meant all the steps to metastasis were blocked.
“After that we could pull them out, query what the gene is, and then validate that the gene is actually responsible for metastasis.”
The approach enabled the team to detect and identify 11 genes that appear to play essential roles in cancer’s spread.
According to the researchers, these genes are widely involved in the process of metastasis and not unique to any one type of tumour.
They now plan to test the genes with drugs developed to prevent metastasis.
Dr Lewis said: “We know that cancer, once it becomes metastatic, will continue to seed other parts of the body and the disease will progress and get worse because of that.
“So I think if we can stop metastasis at any step of progression in cancer patients, we are going to have a significant effect on survival.”
The team is now hoping to progress to human trials over the next few years.
Dr Lewis’ lab is also expanding efforts to look for other types of genes called microRNAs that may present even stronger therapeutic targets for preventing metastasis.
Judy Bray, vice president of the Canadian Cancer Society which co funded the study, said: “Discoveries like this will provide new leads on how we can block cancer from spreading and improve the outcomes of those affected by this disease.”
George Andrews, President and CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation, added: “Our donors have been proud to be supporting Dr Lewis and his team for years and this is exactly the type of return on investment we like to see.
“This groundbreaking research has a direct impact on improving treatment for patients and beyond and we are excited to see it translate into real outcomes for Albertans facing cancer.”
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