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Spread Stopper

A ‘signaling’ molecule makes strides against aggressive cancers.

not all cancerous cells have the ability to spread, but those that do comprise one of the most serious threats faced by patients. Metastatic cancers can be treated but not cured, and almost everyone who receives a diagnosis of metastatic cancer will die from it.

Understanding the molecular mechanisms behind metastasis — the process by which such cancers insinuate themselves into previously healthy tissue — could go a long way toward reversing this grim reality. Toward that end, researchers at MU have recently published an intriguing finding.

The research team, led by Senthil Kumar, an assistant research professor and assistant director of MU’s Comparative Oncology and Epigenetics Laboratory, earlier this year discovered that a molecule used as a communication system by bacteria has the potential to prevent cancer cells from spreading. The molecule, Kumar says, could be used to “control” cancer cell growth and spreading.

“During an infection, bacteria release molecules which allow them to ‘talk’ to each other,” says Kumar. “Depending on the type of molecule released, the signal will tell other bacteria to multiply, escape the immune system or even stop spreading. We found that if we introduce the ‘stop spreading’ bacteria molecule to cancer cells, those cells will not only stop spreading; they will begin to die as well.”

In the study, published by the journal PLOS ONE, Kumar and co-author Jeffrey Bryan, an associate professor of veterinary medicine, used bacterial communication molecules, known as ODDHSLs, to try to stop the progress of human pancreatic carcinoma cells. After the treatment, the pancreatic cancer cells stopped multiplying, failed to migrate and began to die.

“We used pancreatic cancer cells because those are the most robust, aggressive and hard-to-kill cancer cells that can occur in the human body,” Kumar says.

“To show that this molecule can not only stop the cancer cells from spreading, but actually cause them to die, is very exciting. Because this treatment shows promise in such an aggressive cancer like pancreatic cancer, we believe it could be used on other types of cancer cells and our lab is in the process of testing this treatment in other types of cancer.”

Kumar says the next step in his research is to find a more efficient way to introduce the molecules to the cancer cells before animal and human testing can take place.

“Our biggest challenge right now is to find a way to introduce these molecules in an effective way,” Kumar says.

“At this time, we only are able to treat cancer cells with this molecule in a laboratory setting. We are now working on a better method which will allow us to treat animals with cancer to see if this therapy is truly effective. We are making progress on that front. The early-stage results of this research are promising. If additional studies, including animal studies, are successful then the next step would be translating this application into clinics.”

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