Research into challenging cancers like malignant mesothelioma focus on a wide range of inquiries. Many investigate the impact of a specific treatment protocol, while others try to understand how the cancer’s cells grow and spread in hopes that greater understanding will lend itself to new ways to intervene. Researchers from the University of Helsinki have just determined how a mutated gene helps cancer cells leave their tumors and spread to other parts of the body. It is hoped that this will lead to a method of blocking this deadly process.
Mutated Cancer Gene Called Ras Is Present in Mesothelioma Cells
The researchers focused on a cancer gene called Ras that is found in mesothelioma cells, as well as in other recalcitrant cancers. They determined that when the Ras gene mutates, it emits signals that lead to the overproduction of hepsin, a type of protein that breaks other proteins into fragments. This action results in a crowbar type of effect that allows cancer genes to destroy the protective capsule that would normally keep malignant cells from traveling to and impacting surrounding healthy tissue.
The researchers’ findings will have a profound impact on the treatment of malignant mesothelioma as well as many other cancers that have Ras pathways. According to cancer researcher and study author Professor Juha Klefström, “As long as tumors remain in the original body tissue from which they developed from, they are benign and harmless. The tumor cells only become life-threatening cancer cells, when they acquire the capability to spread into surrounding healthy tissues through a process called invasion. We found that a master cancer protein called Ras activates such invasion machinery in the cells. Central to the function of this machinery is a serine protease called hepsin.”
Researcher Explains “Crowbar Effect” in Mesothelioma and Other Cancers
Though not every cancer contains mutant Ras, it is extremely common in pancreatic and colorectal cancer, and has been found in mesothelioma cells as well. Perhaps more importantly, Professor Klefström explains that the signaling mechanism that triggers the excessive hepsin is common in other cancers also. “When hepsin is produced in excess, it becomes a crowbar that breaks down the basement membrane. When this insulating capsule has been torn apart, cancerous epithelial cells can invade the surrounding tissues, causing damage and, in the worst case, spread to other organs causing metastases. In essence, we believe that normally hepsin is a good guy that nurtures the basement membrane but when superpowered under the influence of Ras, it becomes a bad guy that instigates the basement membrane breakdown.”
The next step in applying this knowledge to the treatment of mesothelioma and other cancers will be to block the signal that Ras is sending. The authors explain, “We managed to almost completely prevent the damage to basement membrane caused by the Ras cancer protein in a three-dimensional cell culture, when we prevented hepsin from functioning by using specific antibodies. In animal experiments, blocking hepsin also significantly reduced the spread of Ras-expressing tumors to surrounding tissues. Our findings help understand the mechanisms of cancer spreading, and they open new ideas and opportunities to develop next generation cancer treatments.”
The road to finding a cure for mesothelioma and other cancers may lie in greater understanding of how the cancer cells spread. For more information on recent research and developments, contact the Patient Advocates at Mesothelioma.net today at 1-800-692-8608.