A protein which helps aggressive breast tumours spread the disease through the body using non-cancerous cells has been identified by researchers.
Cells are recruited to invade tissues neighbouring a tumour by the Wnt7a protein, a new study suggests, eventually leading it into the bloodstream.
Scientists have known these cells, called fibroblasts, can help spread cancer, but had not previously understood why they assisted the process.
It was discovered that women with higher levels of Wnt7a were at greater risk of developing secondary disease and had a lower chance of survival.
Once it receives a “rallying call” from the protein, the fibroblasts aid the tumour in entering nearby tissue.
The tumour then enters the bloodstream and finally distant tissue, the report published in Nature Communications said.
Prof Clare Isacke, who led the study, funded by the Breast Cancer Now charity, said: “Our research showed that women whose breast cancers secreted a greater amount of Wnt7a were much more likely to see their disease spread to other parts of the body, at which point it unfortunately becomes incurable.
“We urgently need to stop tumours recruiting and activating non-cancer cells by secreting this Wnt7a protein.
“It is now clear that effective anti-cancer strategies will also need to target the cross-talk between cancer cells and normal cells, and we believe this could be a particularly promising avenue for new treatments in the future.”
Almost 900 breast cancer samples were examined during the research, after the role Wnt7a played in the tumour’s growth was identified in mice.
It is hoped spotting high levels of the protein can become a means of determining which patients are likely to suffer from more aggressive breast cancers.
The communication between tumours and the cells around them could also be the building blocks for future treatment, the paper said.
Researchers have also found they could lower the chances of developing metastasis in the lung by restricting secretion of the protein in aggressive tumours, an area they said requires further study.
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