One of the main ways cancer can become life-threatening is if it grows and metastasizes to another part of the body. In patients with breast cancer, one of the most common metastasis is from the breast to the brain. However, scientists think they may have found a way to stop this from happening.
There is a protein compound called DOCK4 that researchers at the University of Leeds believe may be the key to slowing and even stopping tumor growth. The study, led by Dr. Georgia Mavria, found that when they removed the protein, breast cancer tumors didn’t grow nearly as quickly, because their blood supply was cut off.
DOCK4 seems to be the catalyst for blood vessel growth, particularly in breast tumors that are spreading to the brain. By blocking it, doctors may have a better chance of keeping the cancer from taking hold in the brain — a much more difficult place to treat the disease. Dr. Mavria also hopes the discovery will help identify breast cancer patients who are at risk for metastasis and possibly lead to preventative treatment for them.
However, while the findings are extraordinary, the researchers’ work is far from finished. “We want to understand how these tumours form and grow, but we still need to do more research to stop these tumours growing altogether,” said Dr. Mavria to Daily Mail.
Not altogether unlike how a baby gets nutrients from an umbilical cord, tumors get nutrients and oxygen from complex webs of blood vessels. The middle of a blood vessel is called the lumen, and it’s what allows blood to flow freely through the vessel. Dr. Mavria and her team discovered that the combination of proteins DOCK4 and DOCK9 is responsible for lumen growth, and if they simply remove one of those proteins, the other cannot complete the vessel formation. This in turn cuts off the new tumor’s lifeline and keeps it from maturing and becoming more dangerous.
While this study’s focus was specifically on impeding breast tumor metastasis to the brain, it may mean big things for future cancer treatment and prevention overall. Professor Chris Marshall of The Institute of Cancer Research, who co-authored the study at Leeds, told Daily Mail, “If we can find new ways to reduce the blood supply to tumours, we might be able to find new ways to slow cancer growth in future.”
It makes perfect sense when you think about it — they essentially found a way to starve these tumors by cutting off the lines that bring them their food supply. If there’s no blood flow or significantly less blood flow to the cancer, it won’t be able to grow or move to places like the brain.
This is certainly a huge step forward in the quest to effectively treat breast cancer, but there isn’t a clear path to preventative drugs just yet. The study was initially conducted on mice, so the next and pivotal step is to test the same protein-blocking method on humans to make sure the results are just as safe and effective across species. It may be several years before doctors will be able to prescribe such a treatment to patients.
However, the discovery has definitely brought us a lot closer to that bright light at the end of a dark tunnel of a deadly and unpredictable disease.