Over the past year, Dr Sahai and his team have made a set of extremely exciting discoveries that dramatically improve our understanding of how cancer wreaks havoc around the body. In the future, this knowledge will provide a platform on which new and improved treatments for the disease are designed.
Cutting out the YAP
Cancer associated fibroblasts, or CAFs, are a type of cell that help cancer spread around the body. CAFs do this by burrowing through the tissue surrounding a tumour and leaving tracks for cancer cells to move along.
CAFs also aid tumour growth by helping them construct a network of new blood vessels around themselves – a process called angiogenesis. These new blood vessels tap into the main blood supply and deliver precious nutrients to feed the growing tumour.
While CAFs are not technically cancer cells per se, they are key players in tumour growth (by helping cancer feed itself) and spread (by burrowing through surrounding tissue). Blocking the action of CAFs may therefore present a potential new way of keeping cancer under control.
To learn more about CAFs, Dr Sahai and his team analysed their genetic activity using cutting-edge technologies. They found that one gene – called YAP – was particularly active and that blocking its activity prevents CAFs from working properly.
While these results are exciting, much more remains to be done before this knowledge can be translated into an effective treatment for people with cancer. But as we continue to learn more about how the machine of cancer works – and how to break it – there is real and rational hope for a future of improved treatment.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a very common form of skin cancer, with around 23,000 new cases of the disease diagnosed every year. In its early stages, the disease is very treatable and survival rates are very high. However, when SCC starts to spread around the body, it becomes much more serious and potentially life-threatening.
This pattern is very similar to testicular cancer – both diseases are very treatable in the early stages, but become very dangerous when they spread away from their initial site. Dr Sahai and his team therefore believe that by studying how SCC cells spread, they will also be able to learn about the spread of testicular cancer – and how it can be stopped.
Recently, the team found that a gene called Traf6 is hyperactive in SCC cells, which results in the release of a signal, called TNF-alpha.
This TNF-alpha signal is picked up by other cancer cells in the surrounding area and acts like a programme of instructions telling them to burrow away from the initial tumour site and around the body.
Dr Sahai’s research suggests that if we could neutralise the TNF-alpha signal, we may be able to stop cancer cells from spreading around the body. What’s really exciting is that drugs that block TNF-alpha signals already exist and are in routine use for inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
Future research may therefore allow TNF-alpha blockers to help people whose cancer has spread , allowing us to control this dangerous characteristic of the disease and ultimately save many lives.