MIT researchers have discovered proteins involved in cancer metastasis
About 90 percent of cancer deaths are caused by tumors that have spread from their original locations. This process, known as metastasis, requires cancer cells to break loose from their neighbors and from the supportive scaffold that gives tissues their structure.
MIT cancer biologists have now discovered that certain proteins in this structure, known as the extracellular matrix, help cancer cells make their escape. The researchers identified dozens of proteins that surround highly metastatic tumors, but not less aggressive tumors, and found that four of those proteins are critical to metastasis.
The findings could lead to new tests that predict which tumors are most likely to metastasize, and may also help to identify new therapeutic targets for metastatic tumors, which are extremely difficult to treat.
“The problem is, all the current drugs are targeted to primary tumors. Once a metastasis appears, in many cases, there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Richard Hynes, leader of the research team and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.
“In principle, one could imagine interfering with some of these extracellular proteins and blocking metastasis in a patient. We’re a long way from that, but it’s not inconceivable.”
In this study, the researchers focused on about 1,000 proteins, including about 300 that have been identified in genomic studies as components of the matrix. The remaining proteins include enzymes that modify or degrade the matrix and growth factors that bind to it.