It’s long been established that cancer has the ability to spread from its main source to other points in the body where it also grows and thrives. Often quite distant from its initial site, metastasized cancer is considered especially perilous because it may prove resistant to standard treatment. While researchers have theorized about the mechanisms that may come into play to promote the spread of cancer, a clearer understanding has not been available. A recent study using imaging equipment, however, has cast light on the topic. The findings may one day pave the way to better treatments meant to stop metastasizing cancer in its tracks.
One of the prevailing theories about how cancer spreads involves tumor cells that break off from the original source site. These tumor cells are believed to travel conveniently through the bloodstream to nearby and/or distant organs. Once at a new location, the cells attach to grow new tumors. While this theory seems to hold with some cancers, it doesn’t fit in all cases. After all, tumor cells found in the bloodstream are known to sometimes have a short lifespan. Researchers believe they have uncovered another mechanism by which cancer cells are able to spread. It involves traveling outside blood vessels rather than within them.
To better understand if external transfer was possible, a team of researchers conducted a study involving 3-D imaging. To see if the new theory held, blood vessels were infused with a special dye while human melanoma cells were dyed a different color and then injected into a mouse. The imaging results ultimately showed the melanoma cells traveling along the outer surfaces of blood vessels to reach new destinations.
The implications of the new research are potentially game-changing. As it stands now, when cancer spreads, chemotherapy and other interventions are prescribed. If the cancer is spreading outside the bloodstream, however, chemo is not likely to produce desired, life-saving effects. This type of spread is believed to be connected with such cancers as melanoma, prostate and pancreatic cancer, among others. By gaining the understanding that cancer may, in fact, be spreading by a different mechanism, researchers say it may be possible to create new treatments that more effectively target it.
While more work must be done to understand just how different cancers manage to spread in the body, the recent research provides valuable insights that may someday lead to better treatments. How soon more targeted responses to metastatic cancer might be available remains unclear, but the study may very well have put clinicians on the right path.