Breakthrough discovery from the University of Alberta has identified gene targets that could be the answer to prevent cancer proliferation.
The researchers published their findings in Nature Communications and believe that there is potential to create therapies that could completely block metastasis in a number of deadly cancers.
“It’s of potentially incredible significance,” says John Lewis, the Alberta Cancer Foundation Frank and Carla Sojonky Chair in Prostate Cancer Research at the U of A and a member of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta (CRINA). “Metastasis kills 90 per cent of all patients who have cancer, and with this study we have discovered 11 new ways to potentially end metastasis.”
In the study, the team uses its unique platform — a shell-less avian embryo — to visualise the growth and spread of cancer cells in real time. The researchers used a molecular tool called a knockout library to insert short hairpin RNA (shRNA) vectors into cancer cells that bound to specific genes in the cells and stopped them from activating. They then inserted those cancer cells into the shell-less embryos and observed as they formed clusters of cancer, identifying which ones showed properties of being non-metastatic.
“When we found compact colonies [of cancer], that meant that the key steps of metastasis were blocked,” says Konstantin Stoletov, lead author of the study and a research associate in the Lewis lab. “After that we could pull them out, query what the gene is and then validate that the gene is actually responsible for metastasis.”
This approach gave the researchers the opportunity to detect and identify 11 genes that play essential roles in cancer metastasis that are not limited to any one particular type of cancer. They now plan on testing metastasis-associated genes and gene-products to stop metastasis dead in its tracks.
“We know that cancer, once it becomes metastatic, will keep spreading to other parts of the body and continue to get worse because of that,” says Lewis. “If we can stop metastasis at any step of progression in cancer patients, we’re going to have a significant effect on survival.”
The team is now hoping to progress its research to human trials over the next few years. The Lewis lab is also expanding efforts to explore for other types of genes called microRNAs that may present even stronger therapeutic targets for preventing metastasis.
The research was funded by the Canadian Cancer Society and the Alberta Cancer Foundation.