Queen's scientists in cancer discovery

Published Wednesday, 08 August 2012
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Scientists at Queen's University in Belfast have made a major discovery that could lead to more effective treatments for throat and cervical cancer.

Queen's scientists in cancer discovery
Queen's Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology made the discovery. (© Pacemaker)

The breakthrough could see the development of new therapies targeting the non-cancerous cells surrounding a tumour, as well as treating the tumour itself.

The university's researchers found that the non-cancerous tissue, or 'stroma', which surrounds cancers of the throat and cervix, play an important role in regulating the spread of cancer cells.

This revelation now opens the door for the development of new treatments which could prevent non-cancerous tissue being invaded by neighbouring cancer cells.

The research, led by Professor Dennis McCance, has just been published in the European Molecular Biology Organization Journal.

He explained: "Cancer spreads as the result of two-way communication between the cancer cells in a tumour and the non-cancerous cells in the surrounding tissue.

"We already know that cancer cells are intrinsically programmed to invade neighbouring healthy tissue. But the cells in the non-cancerous tissue are also programmed to send messages to the cancer cells, actively encouraging them to invade."

He said that if these messages sent from the healthy tissue to the tumour can be switched off, then the spread of the cancer will be inhibited.

"What we have discovered is that a particular protein in non-cancerous tissue has the ability to either open or close the communication pathway between the healthy tissue and the tumour.

"When the Retinoblastoma protein (Rb) in non-cancerous tissue is activated, this leads to a decrease in factors that encourage invasion by cancer cells. And so, the cancer doesn't spread."

The Rb protein, found in both cancer and non-cancerous tissue, is important in regulating the growth of cancer cells from within tumours and this has already been well-documented.

However, this is the first time scientists have identified the role of the protein found in healthy tissue, in encouraging or discouraging the spread of cancer.

The three-dimensional tissue samples, grown in Prof McCance's lab, were used to replicate the stroma tissue found around cancers of the throat and cervix.

He continued: "Current treatments for cancer focus on targeting the tumour itself, in order to kill the cancer cells before they spread. This discovery opens the door for us to develop new treatments that would target the normal tissue surrounding a tumour, as opposed to the tumour itself.

"By specifically targeting pathways controlled by the Rb protein, it would be possible to switch-off the messages that encourage cancer cells to invade, and inhibit the spread of the tumour.

"Our research has focussed on cancers of the throat and cervix. But it is possible that Rb or other proteins in the healthy tissue surrounding other types of cancer, may play a similar role in regulating the spread of tumour cells.

"Therefore, the implications of this discovery could go far beyond throat and cervical cancer, and that is something we plan to investigate further."

© UTV News
Comments Comments
tom in ards wrote (904 days ago):
well done queens, a big step in curing this terrible illness.
tanya simpson in belfast wrote (905 days ago):
a great unversity and i pray you find the cure to many of the cancers that are killing the people in northern ireland. i very nearly landed a job in your department of biochemistry thirty two years ago and still known for my knowledge of medicine to this day. tanyak northern ireland.
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