One of the enduring mysteries of cancer is how it spreads to other parts of the body. A tumor in one place is one thing, as it can fool the body into thinking it belongs there. But cells breaking off and finding purchase in other locations shouldn’t be happening. The body’s immune system should be intercepting them, but they don’t. And we now finally know why.
Researchers at Queen Mary University of London found the answer by researching proteins found in cancer cells called integrins. As the name implies, integrins allow cancer tumors to stay stuck together. But once a cell breaks off, a specific integrin, Beta-1, changes its behavior and works with another protein, c-Met, to serve as a sort of protective armor for the cancer cell as it migrates through the body. The team found that when they blocked the protein or otherwise interfered with the process, it slowed the spread of tumors.
It’s not clear why Beta-1 behaves this way or what impact messing with Beta-1 might have on tumors beyond limiting their spread and many more experiments must be done before this knowledge produces a viable treatment. Solving this riddle, however, is an important step in finding better treatments, and perhaps even a cure.