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What determines whether breast cancer cells can form metastases?

No. 33c | 16/06/2023 | by Koh

In most cancers, it is not the growth of the primary tumor that determines the prognosis for the patient, but whether it will spread and form metastases. This process is very complex. There are often years between the development of the cancer and the aggressive growth of the metastases. Scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), the Stem Cell Institute HI-STEM*, the Ruhr University Bochum, Helmholtz Munich and ETH Zurich have studied and identified metastasis growth in breast cancer. They show: Not every breast cancer cell can lead to the development of metastases.

Breast Cancer Cells
© L. Langbein/DKFZ

The scientists looked at a specific cellular mechanism called epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). As a result, cancer cells, which are intrinsically sedentary, gain mobility and can first invade surrounding tissues and eventually be transported to distant organs via blood and lymph channels. In the process, as the term EMT describes, the cancer cells change their cellular identity from "epithelial" to "mesenchymal" and back, which can be detected using various markers.

Reprogrammed clones metastasize less

Both types of cancer cells were present in the metastasis biopsies. Subsequent experiments showed, surprisingly, that only those cancer cells that had retained their original epithelial identity were able to form new metastases, i.e., they drove the cancer. In contrast, a loss of epithelial features characterized cancer cell clones whose metastatic potential was suppressed. The researchers demonstrated that a complex cellular program protects the cellular identity of cancer cells and prevents them from losing their ability to proliferate.

"There are different and sometimes conflicting data on the importance of the EMT mechanism for metastasis in patients, which may also differ depending on the type of cancer," emphasized Martin Sprick of HI-STEM.

"Overall, our results suggest that complete and irreversible EMT surprisingly limits clonal spread of cancer cells, while epithelial identity of cancer cells is absolutely essential for disease spread. Our data in patient cells as well as in various metastatic breast cancer models are consistent with a model in which cancer cells with hybrid status, i.e., with epithelial and mesenchymal features, drive metastasis," said Andreas Trumpp, devision head at DKFZ and HI-STEM director.

"The process of metastasis growth is particularly important because cancers are fundamentally most difficult to treat at this stage," adds Christina Scheel of the Dermatological University Hospital in Bochum. It will now be the task of future research to find out how these experimental results can be used for a therapy of the most aggressive metastasis-forming cancer cells.

Massimo Saini et al: Resistance to mesenchymal reprogramming sustains clonal propagation in metastatic breast cancer.

Cell Reports 2023, DOI:10.1016/j.celrep.2023.112533.

* The Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technology and Experimental Medicine (HI-STEM) gGmbH was founded in 2008 as a public-private partnership between the DKFZ and the Dietmar Hopp Foundation.

With more than 3,000 employees, the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) is Germany’s largest biomedical research institute. DKFZ scientists identify cancer risk factors, investigate how cancer progresses and develop new cancer prevention strategies. They are also developing new methods to diagnose tumors more precisely and treat cancer patients more successfully. The DKFZ's Cancer Information Service (KID) provides patients, interested citizens and experts with individual answers to questions relating to cancer.

To transfer promising approaches from cancer research to the clinic and thus improve the prognosis of cancer patients, the DKFZ cooperates with excellent research institutions and university hospitals throughout Germany:

  • National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT, 6 sites)
  • German Cancer Consortium (DKTK, 8 sites)
  • Hopp Children's Cancer Center (KiTZ) Heidelberg
  • Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON Mainz) - A Helmholtz Institute of the DKFZ
  • DKFZ-Hector Cancer Institute at the University Medical Center Mannheim
  • National Cancer Prevention Center (jointly with German Cancer Aid)
The DKFZ is 90 percent financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and 10 percent by the state of Baden-Württemberg. The DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers.


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