Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My name is cancer and I like to travel.

As Elizabeth Edwards succumbed to cancer today, an article in Science News heralded the discovery of a switch that appears to be central to the ability of cancer cells to move or remain still.  Researchers at the University of Georgia say the misregulation of this switch may play an important role in the processes that allow cancer cells set forth on their malevolent journey around the body to find new places to spawn.  Cancer in situ, that is to say in a particular place, often remains fairly innocuous until it either grows large enough to disturb organ function, or acquires the ability to move and settle elsewhere.  Once it has spread its wings and become metastatic, it is very difficult to control and often leads to the rapid demise of its host. 

Today's new discovery could  lead to a better understanding of how and why cancer cells move and in the longer term, yield new approaches to treatment. Could it be possible that in some distant future we may be able to prevent metastasis altogether and come to view cancer as somewhat of an inconvenience rather than a fatal disease? 

Targeting cancer cells that are getting ready to move, or already on their way to some other place, is one approach but what about trying to understand what makes the new location they settle into so appealing?  Maybe we can make the environment around the body unwelcoming to the invading cells.  There are current approaches to preventing colonization of the cancer cells at the distant location.  Therapies are in development that disrupt the local signalling that is required for the cells to invade and colonize the tissues.  Studies look promising but the problem is far from solved.  Clinical studies with smart combinations will likely be required due to the complex nature of the cellular interactions and there is no better time to jump into these.  All of us have lost friends, family and colleagues to cancer.  In my case, every cancer death I have known to date has been due to metastatic disease. I would vote to divert the majority of funding for cancer research from limiting tumor growth to preventing effective metastasis. Maybe it's heading in that direction already. Any comments welcome...
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