THURSDAY, June 24, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Cancer cells commandeer a normally dormant protein to aid their spread to other organs, a new study has found.
Researchers at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., found that tumor cells spread by reactivating and taking control of a "sleeper" protein, called Twist, that's normally switched off for good during early embryo development.
"As a result, cancer cells acquire in one fell swoop many of the abilities they need to execute the complex stages of metastasis," researcher Robert Weinberg said in a prepared statement.
While scientists have learned a great deal about how tumors originate and develop, they've been unable to find out much about how cancer spreads through the body.
In research with mice, Weinberg and his colleagues found that breast cancer cells are able to reactivate the Twist protein and use it to move to other tissues and organs.
Twist, a gene regulator, enables cells to move from one part of the embryo to another area. As an embryo develops, Twist's functions are no longer necessary and it becomes dormant.
This study found that cancer cells can reactivate Twist and use it to move throughout the body. The actual process used by cancer cells to reactive Twist is unclear.
While the research is still in its very early stages, study co-author Dr. Andrea Richardson, of Brigham and Woman's Hospital in Boston, said drugs might someday be developed that stop cancer from spreading beyond its origins.
"Something like that would turn cancer into a chronic disease, rather than a deadly one," she said.
The study appears in the June 25 issue of the journal Cell.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about metastatic cancer.