Although several cancer treatments are already available, not many end up with positive results. While some patients get cleared of the disease, others get it back eventually and when they do, it comes back worse than ever, spreading even more quickly than it did before. And the thing with cancer treatments is: most are focused on getting rid of the primary tumor because of the belief that the most effective way to stop cancer is to kill it at its source. This is why there’s no drug that addresses the issue of metastasis. Until now.
According to a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications, two proteins have been found to be mainly responsible for initiating the biochemical process that tells cancer cells to migrate and spread.
As explained by Hasini Jayatilaka, postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins and the study’s lead author, it’s not the size of the tumor that determines metastasis; it’s the density of the cell that does. When a tumor is packed full of cancer cells, it secretes two proteins — Interleukin 6 (IL-6) and Interleukin 8 (IL-8). It is these two proteins that trigger the process which instructs cells to move away from the crowded tumor and find a less populated area to occupy.
He likened it to what happens in an overcrowded restaurant — like waiting for a table to become available, then suddenly being told to just go somewhere else to eat. If no one tells the customers to go to a different restaurant, they’d simply stay put and wait. That is the guiding principle for this new kind of cancer treatment — one that is designed to slow down or completely stop the incidence of metastasis.
For their study, the researchers conducted a series of tests on their animal subjects. They found that by applying two existing drugs — Tocilizumab, an approved medication for rheumatoid arthritis and currently in trials for ovarian cancer treatment, and Reparaxin, a drug that’s currently being evaluated as a possible treatment for breast cancer — the receptors that allowed cancer cells to get their migration orders got blocked. In other words, the cancer cells stayed where they were because together, the drugs Tocilizumab and Reparaxin, inhibited the proteins from telling them to move.
Jayatilaka said: “In our eight-week experiment, when we used these two drugs together, the growth of the primary tumor itself was not stopped, but the spread of the cancer cells was significantly decreased.”
The findings of the study, though still only applicable to animals at this stage, are significant because they pave the way for further research into metastasis and how its spread could be stopped. Considering that 90% of cancer deaths are linked with metastasis, anything that can stop, or at least keep this terrible process from progressing can provide some much needed hope for the countless number of patients battling this horrifying disease.