Cancer exploits the body's wound-healing process

May 5, 2005

Scientists have known for the last decade that a link exists between wound healing and cancer. For instance, in a 1994 experiment at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, chickens infected with a cancer virus developed tumors in areas of their body that had undergone wounding or scarring, while no tumors developed in infected areas that had not suffered wounding. However, the biological mechanism for this process hasn't been clear.

Now, through studying muscle tissue in breast cancer, scientists in the lab of Whitehead Institute Member Robert Weinberg have discovered the process by which tumors hijack normal wound-healing processes and use them for their own purposes.

Reported in the May 6 issue of the journal Cell, the research began when Akira Orimo, a postdoctoral scientist in Weinberg's lab, investigated the nature of stromal cells found in breast cancer tumors. Stromal cells form the connective tissue in a mammal's organs and glands. They also form the connective tissue inside a tumor. Tumors are composed mostly of cancer cells and stromal cells, and researchers have wondered if the stromal cells in tumors function any differently than they do in normal tissues. Do they simply hold the tumor together the same way they hold a pancreas or a liver together, or do they actively work with the cancer cells in promoting the tumor's growth?

"It turns out the cancer cells are not acting alone," says Weinberg, who is also a Professor of Biology at MIT. "These stromal cells play an important role in helping these cells, and therefore tumors, to grow."

Orimo found that a particular protein produced by the stromal cells and recruited into human breast cancers, called SDF-1, is a key player in helping tumors grow. SDF-1 interacts with a class of cells called endothelial precursor cells. Found primarily in the blood, these cells travel throughout the body and help aid wounded tissue by enabling new blood vessels to form, a process called angiogenesis. They are an integral part of the body's ability to heal itself.

The stromal cells in the breast cancer tumor produce SDF-1, which in turn persuades these endothelial precursor cells to enter the tumor. Once they do, they help the tumor to form its own robust network of blood vessels, weaving a circulatory system throughout the tumor mass. The tumor can now access the nutrients present in the host's circulating blood and can then grow unchecked.

"Essentially, these stromal cells opportunistically exploit the normal wound healing process to benefit the tumor," says Weinberg.

In recent years, scientists have focused on angiogenesis as a target for therapeutics, with some success. "These findings are one part of the larger angiogenesis picture," says Weinberg. "They lend precision and specificity to that overall scheme."

Orimo now plans to further investigate this process by disturbing the interactions between the stromal cells and the cancer cells, work that may yield new therapeutic insights.

Source: Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

Explore further: Gene research gives new insight into pancreatic cancer

Related Stories

Gene research gives new insight into pancreatic cancer

March 29, 2017

One reason pancreatic cancer has a particularly low survival rate is the difficulty in getting drugs to the tumour, but new knowledge of how pancreatic cancer cells invade neighbouring cells could change that.

A one-two punch hits pancreatic cancer where it hurts

April 5, 2017

Australian scientists have uncovered a promising new approach to treating pancreatic cancer, by targeting the tissue around the tumour to make it 'softer' and more responsive to chemotherapy. The findings are published today ...

Recommended for you

New survey hints at exotic origin for the Cold Spot

April 25, 2017

A supervoid is unlikely to explain a 'Cold Spot' in the cosmic microwave background, according to the results of a new survey, leaving room for exotic explanations like a collision between universes. The researchers, led ...

Gut bacteria tell the brain what animals should eat

April 25, 2017

Neuroscientists have, for the first time, shown that gut bacteria "speak" to the brain to control food choices in animals. In a study publishing April 25 in the Open Access journal PLOS Biology, researchers identified two ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.