Researchers at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center have figured out a key molecular step by which a cancer cell can unhook itself from the mesh weave of other cancer cells in a tumor, and move away to a different part of the body - the process, known as metastasis, that makes cancer so dangerous.
Describing what they call a critical "molecular switch" - detailed in the advance online edition of the journal Nature Cell Biology - the researchers say the door is now open to designing new ways to block that metastasis. "It always has been a mystery as to what allows a cancer cell to become mobile and move away from a tumor, but now we have found a very interesting mechanism that explains it," says the studys lead author, Mien-Chie Hung, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Oncology. That switch, in the form of an enzyme known as GSK-3ß, which is known to alter the function of proteins, may "offer us an anticancer strategy to pursue," Hung says.
Most cancers are of the "solid tumor" variety, and are made up of epithelial cells - those which make up the membranous tissue covering organs and other internal surfaces of the body. Although epithelial cells are firmly fixed to each other in a network that makes up tissue, researchers know from the study of developmental biology that embryonic epithelial cells have the ability to move. To do that, epithelial cells take on the characteristics of what are known as "mesenchymal" cells, those that develop into connective tissue and blood vessel cells, among other tissue types. They are capable of forming collagen fibers that allows them to "creep along" to where they are needed during development.
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