This week, it was reported that a chemical was responsible for the spread of melanoma. Professor Robert Insall and his team at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow are looking into these molecules that tell melanoma to spread. They want to be able to track the precise movement of tumor cells. They believe this will be essential to stopping the late stages of cancer.
Melanoma cells move precisely to spread around the body, hence avoiding the confinement of tumors. This made the team question what guided these cells.
They focused their attention on the chemical “breadcrumb trails” responsible for movement known as chemotaxis, whereby the direction a cell moves is dictated by the relative levels of a particular chemical in its surroundings. Cells travel from where there isn’t very much of it, to where there’s a lot, or vice versa (known as a “chemical gradient”). Many types of cancer cell, including melanoma cells, use chemotaxis as a way to spread around the body. But the exact origin of these gradients, and the molecules involved, is still shrouded in mystery.
The team filmed melanoma cells in a lab and found that the cells were able to create paths without following chemical trails. Furthermore, the more cells that were used made their movements even more efficient. The scientists needed to figure out what was causing this.
In a meticulous set of experiments, the team showed that the melanoma cells were in fact breaking down a chemical signal found in the nourishing soup in which they were growing. By breaking down this signal the cells were producing their own chemical gradient – put simply, this meant there was always be a bit more of the chemical a few microscopic “footsteps” away, tempting the cells to keep moving in that direction.
The team still had to figure out what the molecule was that was moving the cells. Eventually they were led to a signaling molecule called lysophosphatidic acid (LPA). Cells treated with LPA moved with accuracy, but without it they lost their direction. This proved that LPA was guiding the melanoma cells. The team now needed to look into where this LPA was coming from. Testing with mice was begun to look further into this question and many others.
We at MoleSafe applaud this team for their discovery. While there is much more testing to be done, this could be an important first step.
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