“A female patient with breast cancer doesn’t succumb to the disease just because she has a mass on her breast; she succumbs to the disease because [when] it spreads either to the lungs, the liver, the brain, it becomes untreatable,” says Hasini Jayatilaka, a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Johns Hopkins University and part of a team researching cancer and which has authored a study in Nature Communications on how cancers metastasize. Carrie Wells reports for the Baltimore Sun on the team, writing:
Typically, cancer research and treatment has focused on shrinking the primary tumor through chemotherapy or other methods. But, the team said, by attacking the deadly process of metastasis, more patients could survive.
“It’s not this primary tumor that’s going to kill you typically,” said Denis Wirtz, Johns Hopkins’ vice provost for research and director of its Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, who was a senior author on the paper.
Jayatilaka began by studying how cancer cells behave and communicate with each other, using a three-dimensional model that mimics human tissue rather than looking at them in a petri dish. Many researchers believe metastasis happens after the primary tumor reaches a certain size, but Jayatilaka found it was the tumor’s density that determined when it would metastasize.
“If you look at the human population, once we become too dense in an area, we move out to the suburbs or wherever, and we decide to set up shop there,” Jayatilaka said. “I think the cancer cells are doing the same thing.”
When the tumor reaches a certain density, the study found, it releases two proteins called Interleukin 6 and Interleukin 8, signaling to cancer cells that things had grown too crowded and it was time to break off and head into other parts of the body.
Read more on this groundbreaking research here.