A series of cancer breakthroughs in the last week have stunned the medical world and cleared the way for development of drugs that stop cancerous growths in their tracks and prevent them from spreading, giving hope to millions of people around the world suffering from the disease in all its many forms.
Researchers at the University College London announced Sunday in a study published by the journal Nature Cell Biology that they've observed for the first time ever how cancer spreads throughout the body and metastasizes, which causes about 90 percent of all cancer deaths.
Scientists said they discovered that cancerous cells tend to follow healthy cells through the bloodstream, calling it the "chase and run effect." The cancer cells instinctively know to chase down healthy cells through a process called chemotaxis, which essentially lets the infected cell sniff out healthy cells by sensing the chemical makeup of its environment.
To study how this interaction leads to unpredictable behaviors, scientists told The Daily Telegraph they tweaked two different types of embryonic cells from frogs and zebrafish to act out this "chase-and-run" game in front of their microscopes, watching the interaction carefully.
The discovery means that drugs which disrupt this interaction would essentially prevent metastastasis, but it's still going to be several years before scientists have a handle on such a therapy.
Meanwhile, another major breakthrough in recent days should give hope to breast cancer patients. Scientists at the Duke Cancer Institute announced on Saturday that a drug already on the market in Europe, approved to treat osteoporosis, has the added benefit of stopping late-stage breast cancer growth in its tracks.
"We found bazedoxifene binds to the estrogen receptor and interferes with its activity, but the surprising thing we then found was that it also degrades the receptor; it gets rid of it," study author Dr. Donald McDonnell explained in an advisory.
His research showed that not only does the drug affect cancerous cells dependent on estrogen, it also affects cells that have developed a resistance to the most frequently-used drugs designed to treat breast cancer, meaning it could prove a valuable tool for treating sufferers of late-stage breast tumors.
Of course, it's not just breast cancer that scientists are hard at work deconstructing. Researchers at the University of California San Diego announced in a study published Saturday in the journal Cancer Research that they have identified a protein called ROR1 that, when expressed in high levels, appears to encourage and even regulate the growth of tumors.
When disrupted by targeting a certain gene and silencing it, cancerous cells observed in a lab setting stopped growing. They concluded that custom-designed antibodies which target the protein "can inhibit cancer progression and metastasis," leading to much more effective treatments and greater success rates for terminally ill patients. A drug which does just that is already in development, but it's not clear when it will be ready for human trials.
Similar efforts are underway to develop viruses that actually attack cancer cells and make them "sick," according to a study published Friday in the journal Nature Communications. While that effort has shown some stunning success, treatments there are also still years away.
“Unfortunately, cancer is a very complicated and diverse disease, and some viruses work well in some circumstances and not well in others," the University of Ottawa's Dr. John Bell said in an advisory. "As a result, there has been a lot of effort in trying to modify the viruses to make them safe, so they don’t target healthy tissue and yet are more efficient in eliminating cancer cells.”
[Stock photo: Scientist looking at test tubes, via Shutterstock.]