A new method to address breast cancer is by converting harmful cancer cells into fat through a novel combination of drugs that manipulates the body’s natural processes.
Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland found a way to use cell plasticity to stop the spread of breast cancer. The study was published in the journal Cancer Cell.
Cancer is known to be a deadly by-product from the mutation of cells, which overwhelms and takes over other healthy cells in the body. Specifically, what makes cancer deadly is when those cancer cells start to go through metastasis.
Primarily, most cancer cells often lead to developing tumors due to the rapid replication of cancer cells in a specific area in the body. Metastasis, on the other hand, is the process through which cancer cells escape from primary tumors and starts to spread to other parts of the body to “metastasize” and create new tumors.
Relevantly, researchers believe that one of the most effective ways of combatting cancer is by preventing cancer cells from metastasizing in the first place. Chemotherapy treatments, in particular, are developed to kill off cancer cells to do this.
However, these kinds of treatments are often harmful, as it affects other healthy cells in the process. In the latest study by Swiss researchers, it aims to do the same but by taking advantage of the natural process the body undergoes.
To be specific, researchers found that epithelium cells——a flexible type of cell that changes into a type of stem cell——has been found to be a cause for cancer cells to thrive.
Epithelium cells are naturally found in our bodies and have the “plasticity” to change itself into other kinds of cells in situations the body calls on it for help. For example, epithelium cells that become stem cells can help the body repair itself when you have a cut.
However, several studies found that cancer takes advantage of these cells to transport them to other parts of the body and eventually become cancer cells themselves.
In the study, researchers explained that while epithelium cells go through the process of changing called epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), cancer can use this to spread throughout the body and metastasize. An opposite pathway called MET (mesenchymal‐to‐epithelial transition) is also said to be used.
Metastasis is a complex process, what scientists call as the “metastatic cascade.”
There are three main stages in the cascade: invasion, in which cancer cells detach from the primary tumor environment; intravasation, in which the cells enter blood vessels; and extravasation, in which they exit blood vessels.
To effectively go through the three stages of the cascade, cancer cells go through different sages.
In the first stage, for example, the cells lose their ability to stick to each other and their surroundings, allowing them to detach from the primary tumor tissue.
In the case of breast cancer, cells use the EMT pathway to replicate — the same pathway researchers attacked with a combination of drugs that hopefully prevent cancer from spreading.
In an experiment, researchers treated mice implanted with an aggressive form of human breast cancer. They administered a diabetes drug called “rosiglitazone” and a cancer treatment called “trametinib.”
Results showed that cancer cells who utilized any of the EMT or MET pathways was converted into harmless fat cells through a process called adipogenesis.
“The models used in this study have allowed the evaluation of disseminating cancer cell adipogenesis in the immediate tumor surroundings,” the team wrote.
“The results indicate that in a patient-relevant setting combined therapy with rosiglitazone and trametinib specifically targets cancer cells with increased plasticity and induces their adipogenesis.”
Furthermore, scientists noted that not only was the treatment successful in converting cancer into fat cells, it also significantly prevented them from spreading, senior author Gerhard Christofori, a biochemist at the University of Basel described.
“As far as we can tell from long-term culture experiments, the cancer cells-turned-fat cells remain fat cells and do not revert back to breast cancer cells.”
Currently, the two drugs used in the study have already received FDA approval; hence, it should be easier to get this type of treatment into clinical trials for actual people
The World Health Organization (WHO) suggest that around 2.1 million women receive a diagnosis of breast cancer every year. These also suggest that 627,000 women died of the disease in 2018.
If the study finds success in human clinical trials, it could introduce a less harmful method of treating breast cancer.
In the meantime, the team is investigating whether this therapy would work if combined with chemotherapy and whether it would apply to other types of cancers.
“In future, this innovative therapeutic approach could be used in combination with conventional chemotherapy to suppress both primary tumor growth and the formation of deadly metastases,” Christofori explained to the Press Association.
“The clinical evaluation of the treatment’s repressive effect on experimental breast cancer metastasis and, thus, of its potential in treating stage IV breast cancer will require adjuvant combinations with chemotherapy in advanced preclinical models,” the team wrote.
“Since we have used FDA-approved drugs to study the preclinical effect of the treatment, a clinical translation may be possible.”