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Promise and Progress - How Breast Cancer Spreads

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How Breast Cancer Spreads

Date: January 15, 2015


Aleksander Popel
Aleksander Popel

Nature Communications, Sept. 2, 2014

Breast cancer cells can lay the groundwork for their own spread throughout the body by coaxing lymphatic cells, called LECs, to send out tumor-welcoming signals.  The research team found these signaling molecules released by breast cancer cells in animal and cell culture laboratory experiments.

It appears that the molecules set a multistep cellular process in motion that beckons tumor cells to the lungs and lymph nodes while also increasing and altering blood vessel formation that make it easier for tumor cells to travel to and infiltrate the lungs.

“It was surprising to find that LECs can play such an active and significant role in tumor spread,” says Aleksander Popel, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering and oncology and member of the Kimmel Cancer Center.  “Conventionally, lymphatic vessels were regarded mainly as passive conduits through which tumor cells spread from the primary tumor site. Now we know that they enable metastasis and that they may even play an important role in whether or not immune cells recognize and attack cancer.”

Popel and team identified an FDA-approved antiviral drug used to treat HIV that can block this molecular signaling process. In animal and test tube studies, it successfully blocked cancer cell spread.  The researchers say combining the antiviral drug with another drug to block the blood vessel changes provides a potential way to prevent breast cancer spread in humans.  “It could be delivered along with chemotherapy right after surgical removal of the tumor in a bid to prevent any leftover circulating tumor cells from finding a new niche in the body,” says Popel.

Popel collaborated with Kimmel Cancer Center bioinformatics expert Elana Fertig, Ph.D., and breast cancer researchers Kideok Jin, Ph.D., and Saraswati Sukumar, Ph.D., on this study.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (RO1 CA138264) and the Safeway Foundation for Breast Cancer.

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