Experiments carried out by a team at University College London uncovered what causes the disease to migrate.
In many cases, death from cancer is not caused by the primary tumour, but the secondary growth.
Scientists found that diseased cells are attracted to healthy cells, which then try to move away from the cancerous cell. However, the cancer cell continues to follow the healthy cell, causing the disease to spread through the body. “Nobody knew how this happened, and now we believe we have uncovered it,” said Prof Roberto Mayor, who led the team. “If that is the case it will be relatively easy to develop drugs that interfere with this interaction.”
While the team has not identified what causes cancer in the first place, the research, published in Nature Cell Biology, offers hope of new treatments for a disease that claims 150,000 lives every year in Britain.
The key to the findings was understanding why cancerous cells attach themselves to healthy cells in the first place. Scientists did this by mimicking what happens by using comparable types of cell and observing their behaviour.
“We use the analogy of the donkey and the carrot to explain this behaviour: the donkey follows the carrot, but the carrot moves away when approached by the donkey,” added Prof Mayor.
“The findings suggest an alternative way in which cancer treatments might work in the future if therapies can be targeted at the process of interaction between malignant and healthy cells to stop cancer cells from spreading and causing secondary tumours.
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