BCRF Researcher Finds Cancer Cells Travel Together to Forge Metastases

BCRF investigator Andrew Ewald, PhD, Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Member of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, conducts research in metastatic breast cancer, focusing on the molecular and cellular aspects of how cancers spread.

In an article published on line this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Dr. Ewald shows that groups of cancer cells (as few as 5–10 cells) invade the tissue around the primary tumor, and as a group, detach from the tumor, travel through the blood and then exit the blood and form a “community” of cancer cells in distant organs. The study finds that these few cells may each have their own unique properties; in particular, each cell could have different sensitivities to treatments.

In a recent interview with BCRF, Dr. Ewald elaborated by explaining that there are different states of a cancer cell. It can be growing (as in the primary tumor) or going (traveling away from primary tumor), and different molecular programs drive these states.

“If we can identify the ‘switch’ that turns a few cells into a clinically significant metastasis, we could prevent metastasis from growing and becoming deadly. We see this as an achievable objective in the next five years and it’s what our lab is focusing on,” said Dr. Ewald.

The next steps in his research will be to determine what molecular programs determine whether this cluster of 5, 10 or 20 cells becomes a tumor. Current research shows that once a cluster of tumor cells arrives at the distant site, it leaves the “go” state and reverts to the “grow” state to form the micrometastasis.

Dr. Ewald credits the utilization of sophisticated laboratory models of breast cancer and advanced imaging technologies to study the processes of metastasis as they occur.

“We can watch breast cancer cell invasion, for instance, in real time. With time-lapse microscopy we can create films that document discrete steps during the process, removing layers of inferences and assumptions about the individual steps of the cancer process.”

Combining these tools with the power of genomics, Dr. Ewald’s goal is to identify the drivers that cause a tumor to spread to distant tissues, to develop strategies to identify the patients at highest risk of metastatic recurrence, and to design innovative therapies to improve outcomes for those whose breast cancer has metastasized.

You can read more about the study in the press release from Johns Hopkins University.

To learn more about Dr. Ewald, including what inspires his research, click here.

Visit here to learn more about all of the BCRF grantees and their current research.

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