Around 90% of cancer patients die due to metastasis. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Danish scientists deactivate cells to cure cancer

When special cells known as fibroblasts are active, cancer can spread throughout the body. Scientists are trying to find out how they can deactivate the fibroblast cells. In the long term, the studies may lead to treatments for otherwise incurable cancer.

Cancer tumours which are not discovered in time often spread to other parts of the body. When the cancer has spread it is more difficult to fight it using current methods such as chemotherapy.

Therefore, Danish scientists want to find a way to prevent cancer from spreading in the body.

"When we scan cancer patients and see that the tumour has spread, then treatment possibilities are very limited. This is a serious problem," says assistant Professor Janine Terra Erler, head of research at the University of Copenhagen Biotic Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC).

Metastasis to stop growth

An untreated tumour transmits a variety of signals in the body in the form of proteins. The signals activate a special kind of cell called a fibroblast. These cells cause the tissue in the tissue around the tumour to change structure and function, thus allowing it to develop and spread, explains Erler.

Assistant Professor Terra Erler has received a grant of DKK 6.4 million from Det Frie Forskningsråd for her project ’Hypoxic regulation of cancer associated fibroblasts’, the purpose is to improve our understanding of metastasis and the prevention of it.

Cancer which has spread to other organs is called metastasis.

Fibroblasts to be deactivated – not destroyed

The study's objective is to find a way to deactivate fibroblasts in order to prevent the tissue changing structure and, thereby, creating the basis for tumour growth and metastasis.

Fibroblasts are an important part of our tissue, because they regulate the natural balance of the tissue. Normally, fibroblasts are only active if something is wrong, for instance, in the event of a wound.

The fibroblast contains collagen, a substance which determines the formation of scar tissue. Under normal conditions, fibroblasts are 'programmed' to deactivate, when the ‘job’ is done. However, in a tumour, the cancer cells are able to control the local chemical signals and thereby influence the fibroblasts to produce an environment suited for tumour growth.

In previous experiments, scientists tried in vain to kill the active fibroblasts. Instead, Erler wants to find a method that can deactivate fibroblasts in cancer tumours.

"When we understand the molecular mechanisms fully, there is a good chance, that we will be able to develop new drugs to stop metastasis," says Erler.

Special technique causes fibroblasts to light up red

The scientists added cancer cells to fibroblasts and then examined the tissue in a microscope under special lighting, which makes the fibroblasts light up, if they are active.

"This is a special technique we have developed, which causes fibroblasts to emit fluorescent proteins which light up," says Erler. 

In this way, they observed how, and under which conditions, cancer cells activate fibroblasts.

Translated by: Hugh Matthews

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