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Department of Oncology


Breakthrough in our understanding of how cancer spreads could lead to better treatments.

Scientists have discovered that cancer exploits the body’s tissue repair process to spread cells around the body. They found that a protein called NALCN is involved in regulating both tissue repair and metastasis. Targeting NALCN with drugs could one day allow us to prevent cancer spread.

Professor Richard Gilbertson (Department of Oncology and CRUK Cambrudge Centre) and his team based at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute found that that cancer cells ‘hijack’ a process used by healthy cells to spread around the body, completely changing current ways of thinking around cancer metastasis.

The team found that blocking the activity of the NALCN protein in cells in mice with cancer triggers metastasis.

The research, led Dr Eric Rahrmann (Senior Research Associate at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute), was published in Nature Genetics (link is external) also discovered that this process is not just restricted to cancer. To their surprise, when they removed NALCN from mice without cancer, this caused their healthy cells to leave their original tissue and travel around the body where they joined other organs.

They found, for example, that healthy cells from the pancreas migrated to the kidney where they became healthy kidney cells.This suggests that metastasis isn’t an abnormal process limited to cancer as previously thought, but is a normal process used by healthy cells that has been exploited by cancers to migrate to other parts of generate metastases.

Cancer Research UK’s Director of Research, Dr Catherine Elliott, said: “Once cancer has spread from the first tumour, it is harder to treat because we are looking at multiple sites in the body and working with new tumours that may be resistant to treatment. Discovering that a cancer has spread is always devastating news for patients and their families and so we are delighted to have supported this incredible research which may one day allow us to prevent metastasis and turn cancer into a much more survivable disease.”