This article was produced and financed by University of Bergen

Cancer cells spread through blood vessel. They use a specific protein to penetrate tissue. (Photo: Colourbox)

Scientists discover protein that spreads cancer

Nils Halberg at the University of Bergen has identified a protein that makes it possible for cancer cells to spread throughout the body.

University of Bergen

The University of Bergen is located in Bergen, Norway. Six faculties cover most of the traditional university disciplines. Within the faculties are included 60 different specialised departments, centres and institutes.

The cells inside a tumour differ a lot. While some remain “good” and do not cause trouble, others become aggressive and start to spread to other organ sites. It is very hard to predict which cells become aggressive or not.

Nevertheless, by isolating these aggressive cancer cells in in vivo tests on animals, researchers at The Rockefeller University and the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Bergen (UiB) have discovered a certain protein (PITPNC1) that characterises aggressive cancer cells.

“We discovered that the spreading aggressive cancer cells in cases of colon, breast, and skin cancer contained a much higher portion of the protein PITPNC1, than the non-aggressive cancer cells,” says researcher Nils Halberg of the CELLNET Group at the Department of Biomedicine at UiB.

“This means we can predict which of the cancer cells that might spread at a much earlier stage than today.”

How cells penetrate tissue

The researcher also discovered that this protein, that characterizes the aggressive cancer cells, has a very specific function in the process of spreading cancer.

The cancer cells spread from one place in the body to another, through the blood vessel. To get into the blood vessels, the cell needs to penetrate tissue, both when it leaves the tumour and when it's attaching itself to a new organ.

“The protein PITPNC1 regulates a process where the cancer cells are secreting molecules, which cut through a network of proteins outside the cells, like scissors. The cancer cell is then able to penetrate the tissue and set up a colonies at new organ sites,” Halberg explains.

The researcher's discovery is recently published in the journal Cancer Cell.

Custom-made therapy

A tumour that is not spreading, is usually not dangerous for the patient if it is removed. The hard part in cancer therapy is when the tumour starts to spread.

Guided by the new discoveries, supported by the Bergen Research Foundatio's (BFS) Recruitment Programme, Halberg hopes to contribute to a better treatment of cancer patients.

“If we get to the point where we can offer a custom-made therapy that targets the function of this protein, we might be able to stop it spreading,” says Nils Halberg.

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