Cancer treatments usually target the disease-causing tumour, but researchers in Belfast suggest targeting the non-cancerous cells around a tumour could be a more effective treatment.
Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast have found that the stroma – or non-cancerous tissues – surrounding cancers plays an important role in regulating the spread of cancer cells. They hope that the discovery could lead to the development of new therapies to target these cells as well as treating the tumour itself.
“Cancer spreads as the result of two-way communication between the cancer cells in a tumour and the non-cancerous cells in the surrounding tissue,” said Professor Dennis McCance, who led the research published in Nature.
“We already know that cancer cells are intrinsically programmed to invade neighbouring healthy tissue. But the cells in the non-cancerous tissue are also programmed to send messages to the cancer cells, actively encouraging them to invade. If these messages – sent from the healthy tissue to the tumour – can be switched off, then the spread of the cancer will be inhibited.”
McCance’s team from the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology discovered that a particular protein in the non-cancerous tissue has the ability to open or close this communication pathway. The protein – Retinoblastoma (Rb) – is found in both cancerous and non-cancerous tissues, and its importance in regulating the growth of cancer cells from within tumours is well documented. However, this is the first time scientists have identified its role in healthy tissue and encouraging or discouraging the spread of cancer.
“When the Retinoblastoma protein in non-cancerous tissue is activated, this leads to a decrease in factors that encourage invasion by cancer cells,” said McCance. “And so, the cancer doesn’t spread.”
The team used three-dimensional tissue samples grown in McCance’s lab, to replicate stroma tissue found around cancers of the throat and cervix, although Rb and other proteins in healthy tissue could play a role in inhibiting other cancers – something the team now plan to investigate.