Cancer researchers closer to understanding why some cells go rogue

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

Adelaide researchers are coming ever closer to figuring out how cancer cells hijack normal cells in their vicinity to help them to grow.

“Cancers consist of many other cell types in addition to cancer cells,” says Dr Sarah Boyle who is researching how the environment surrounding breast cancer cells helps them to grow. “These other cells include a cell type called fibroblasts that produce proteins to make up the extracellular matrix or ECM.”

“The ECM is a scaffold that gives organs and tissues their shape and structure, and is largely made up of a protein called collagen. As breast cancers grow, the amount of ECM increases and it also becomes stiffer, which can make the cancer grow faster. When a lump is felt during a breast check, it is this stiff ECM that is being sensed by the fingers.”

“We have found that growing cancers can release chemical signals into their environment that hijack fibroblasts, making these cells more cancer-promoting and also making them produce more ECM.

“The long-term clinical goal of this research is to design drugs that stop the cancer cells from hijacking fibroblasts.”

Cancer research: look at it differently

Boyle is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow in the Tumour Microenvironment Laboratory at the Centre for Cancer Biology at the University of South Australia. She will be one of the guests at the monthly public Cosmos Science City conversation titled “The Topic of Cancer,” at The Science Exchange in Adelaide on October 3.

Another area of Boyle’s research is investigating how forces in the environment help cancers to grow.

Mammary cancer. Jpg
“Mammary cancer”: Image of a slice of a mammary cancer that has been labelled immunofluorescently for cancer cells (outlined in green), which produce a protein (pink) that hijacks fibroblast cells (aqua) in their surrounding environment to become cancer-promoting. (Image Sarah Boyle)

“When tumours are growing in a constricted space, such as the mammary milk duct or intestine, they experience a lot of mechanical pressure. This pressure can cause changes in the biochemistry within cancer cells.

“We have found that cancer cells subjected to mechanical pressure are more aggressive and multiply quicker, and tumours grow bigger. Understanding how and why this happens can provide valuable information to work out how to prevent or stop the effects of presssure,” Boyle says.

The University of SA has more than 300 researchers working to prevent and treat cancer and to support the growing numbers of survivors of this disease.

Boyle and the team at the Centre for Cancer Biology, together with collaborators interstate, discovered the previously unknown way in which breast cancer cells hijack normal cells nearby to help tumours to grow and invade. “Cancer cells that lack this ability are unable to grow and invade surrounding tissues effectively.”

Other cancer researchers who will share their insights at the free public conversation include Dr Zeyad D Nassar from the University of Adelaide who is dedicated to exploring pathways driving prostate cancer progression and drug resistance; Dr Michael Penniment a radiation oncologist at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute who is involved in a number of research projects, with a focus on planning and developing new radiation therapy facilities, improving indigenous cancer care, and quality of life during cancer treatment and Associate Professor Erin Symonds who manages research at Bowel Health Services in the Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer.

Details to arrange a free ticket attend in person or watch online are here.

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