How is a breast cancer metastasis like an alien invader?

January 28, 2015 | by Nicole White

We’ve seen it in science fiction: The aliens begin terra-forming a planet to create a friendly habitat that gives them, not the inhabitants, all the advantages when the colonization begins.

Aliens and breast cancer cells Breast cancer metastasis is like an alien invader: It can remake an environment to benefit its kind, not the native cells.

Turns out, cancer does essentially the same thing when it metastasizes, according to new research from City of Hope. The findings, in which glucose plays a crucial role, were published online by Nature Cell Biology.

“Cancer cells have a sweet tooth,” said S. Emily Wang, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Cancer Biology at City of Hope and the study's principal investigator. “They are addicted to glucose.”

That’s the sugar that fuels their growth, and ensuring an unlimited supply of that fuel is how the terra-forming begins. 

Wang and her team studied small molecules called microRNA, or mRNA, that are secreted by cancer cells and that suppress healthy cells from metabolizing glucose.

What Wang and her team found was that the mRNA molecules secreted by breast cancer cells travel from the cancer to other sites of the body. There, the mRNAs prevent healthy cells from getting any glucose, essentially starving them. So, when the cancer migrates to the site, the cancer cells don’t have competition for the glucose and other nutrients.

This concept, being published for the first time, builds on previous work by City of Hope that has shown finding mRNA in the blood of a patient can be a predictor for a breast cancer metastasis occurring or for a patient being resistant to treatment. This study is a strong first step toward being able to predict the site in the body where cancer might metastasize – giving the body, patients and physicians a chance to fight back before the metastasis starts.

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Learn more about breast cancer treatment and breast cancer research at City of Hope.

Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion at City of Hope by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.

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