Northern Ireland

NI cancer discovery paves way for better treatments

Queen's University
Image caption Scientists at Queen's University open the door on a new way for treating cancer

Scientists at Queen's University, Belfast, have made a discovery which could lead to more effective treatments for throat and cervical cancers.

It involves targeting the non-cancerous cells surrounding a tumour, as well as treating the tumour itself.

Researchers found that non-cancerous tissue surrounding cancers of the throat and cervix, plays a role in regulating the spread of cancer cells.

Treatments could be developed to stop that tissue being invaded by cancer.

Scientists believe it is possible to switch-off the messages that encourage cancer cells to invade and so, inhibit the spread of the tumour.

The research, led by Prof Dennis McCance, has just been published in the European Molecular Biology Organization Journal.

"Cancer spreads as the result of two-way communication between the cancer cells in a tumour and the non-cancerous cells in the surrounding tissue," Prof McCance said.

"We already know that cancer cells are intrinsically programmed to invade neighbouring healthy tissue.

"But the cells in the non-cancerous tissue are also programmed to send messages to the cancer cells, actively encouraging them to invade. If these messages - sent from the healthy tissue to the tumour - can be switched-off, then the spread of the cancer will be inhibited.

"What we have discovered is that a particular protein in non-cancerous tissue has the ability to either open or close the communication pathway between the healthy tissue and the tumour. When the Retinoblastoma protein (Rb) in non-cancerous tissue is activated, this leads to a decrease in factors that encourage invasion by cancer cells. And so, the cancer doesn't spread."

Professor McCance said that current treatments for cancer focus on targeting the tumour itself, in order to kill the cancer cells before they spread.

"This discovery opens the door for us to develop new treatments that would target the normal tissue surrounding a tumour, as opposed to the tumour itself.

"By specifically targeting pathways controlled by the Rb protein, it would be possible to switch-off the messages that encourage cancer cells to invade, and inhibit the spread of the tumour."

"Our research has focussed on cancers of the throat and cervix. But it is possible that Rb or other proteins in the healthy tissue surrounding other types of cancer, may play a similar role in regulating the spread of tumour cells. Therefore, the implications of this discovery could go far beyond throat and cervical cancer, and that is something we plan to investigate further."

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre and the National Institutes of Health (USA), and was supported by the Northern Ireland Biobank.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites