Cornell University Researchers Discover Switch That Controls Spread of Breast Cancer

Cancer has long been associated with inflammation. Biomedical engineers at Cornell University have now found the natural “switch” between the body’s response to inflammation and breast cancer metastasis–how malignant breast cancer cells use the bloodstream to spread elsewhere in the body.  The findings were recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Cancer cells spread by sticking to the the thin lining of blood vessels, called the endothelium. However, it has been unclear how the cancer cells manage to do this. Researchers in the lab of Michael R. King, professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell, developed a flow chamber that resembles the lining of endothelium in order to determine  how breast cancer cells spread through blood and attach to cells.

In analyzing hormone therapy-resistant breast cancer cells sticking to the endothelium, the researchers accidentally discovered  that these cells interacted with receptor sites in blood vessels known as selectins. The is is a similar process as white blood cells racing to blood vessels to fight infection and inflammation.

The researchers found that the presence of pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines helped the malignant breast cancer cells adhere to the endothelial wall, thus leading to metastasis. The cytokines then help promote growth of breast cancer cells, triggering other cells to release more cytokines.

The researchers then treated the cells with an anti-inflammatory drug called Metformin, used to treat diabetes. After treatment with Metformin, the cells were not able to metastasize, thus confirming the findings.

The authors write, “There is compelling evidence supporting the strong interplay between various types of inflammation and cancer progression suggested by numerous clinical and epidemiological studies….Taken together, these results suggest that therapeutic approaches targeting cytokine receptors and adhesion molecules on cancer cells may help reduce the likelihood of metastasis and deserve further attention.”

Click here to read the published research study.

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