- Cancer develops mainly from mutations in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes
- Cancer cells communicate with macrophages which help cancer cells invade tissues and spread throughout the body
- New research may lead to drugs that prevent cancer from invading tissues or treatments that allow macrophages to fight off tumors
Picture the happy, healthy cells in your body going about their business and doing their jobs to keep you alive. Then one day, some evil cell comes along and gets these cells to turn on you. This may seem like a dramatic story of mutiny, but scientists have discovered that this is what actually happens in cancer. In fact, the happy, healthy cells that turn on you are the very cells that were supposed to protect you from disease.
It has long been established that cancer develops as a result of mutations in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. Oncogenes promote normal cell division and when mutated, promote excessive cell division. This is similar to stepping on the gas pedal of a car and not being able to lift your foot. Tumor suppressor genes, on the other hand, slow down or stop cell division when it goes out of control and when mutated, can’t regulate cell division. In a car, a mutation in a tumor suppressor gene would be almost like removing the brakes. Ultimately, mutations in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes allow mutated cells to divide uncontrollably and invade the body’s tissues.
While all of that is true, scientists are now finding that there is more to the story. In recent years, it has been discovered that cancer cells communicate with immune cells known as macrophages in order to invade tissues and spread throughout the body. This communication takes place when cancer cells send molecules to receptors on macrophages. For example, a cancer cell can communicate with a macrophage using the CSF-1 receptor, which would then activate different proteins that affect the expression of oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. As a result of this communication, macrophages can allow cancer cells to become invasive and deadly.
Researchers like Dr. Salvatore Coniglio of Kean University (NJ) are trying to find out more about this link between macrophages and cancer cells. In his laboratory, Dr. Coniglio studies brain cancer and tries to determine which genes are expressed and which proteins are released by macrophages in a tumor-friendly environment. He believes that rather than fighting the tumor like immune cells would with a normal infection, macrophages are forced by cancer cells into supporting the tumor.
Dr. Coniglio hopes that research on the communication between cancer cells and macrophages will lead to better drugs to combat cancer. For example, if a drug were to block the receptors that cancer cells use to communicate with macrophages, the tumor would be less likely to spread out and invade other tissues or parts of the body. By figuring out how cancer cells force macrophages into supporting the tumor, scientists may also learn how to force macrophages into fighting the tumor. Dr. Coniglio emphasizes that a great gain of such research is the discovery of new information about cancer, which constantly contributes to finding better treatments and a happy ending to cancer’s tragic story.
- “Genetics of Cancer,” Annenberg Foundation, https://www.learner.org/course
s/biology/textbook/cancer/ cancer_3.html (accessed August 4, 2016).
- Dr. Salvatore J. Coniglio and others, “Microglial Stimulation of Glioblastoma Invasion Involves Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) and Colony Stimulating Factor 1 Receptor (CSF-1R) Signaling,” Molecular Medicine 18 (2012): 519-520, accessed August 4, 2016, http://static.smallworldlabs.c
- Dr. Salvatore Coniglio in discussion with the author, August 2016.
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