If you get cancer, it’s likely that the tumor itself won’t get you. The most common cause of cancer death is from the metastases that form when the initial tumor spreads, sending cancers cells out which grow elsewhere. These cells travel through your blood, like assassins crawling through the ductwork, but until now it’s not been known how they get in and out of your blood stream.
Researchers at Germany’s Max Planck Institute found that the cancer cells punch their way through the wall of a blood vessel to get in, but they do it in a sneaky way. There’s a particular cell in the blood vessel’s wall which has a molecule on its surface called the Death Receptor 6 (I kid you not). This is like the self-destruct mechanism inexplicably built into all sci-fi spaceships, and when triggered by the cancer cell, the countdown starts. The upshot is that the Death Receptor causes the blood-vessel cells to commit suicide, letting the cancer cell slip through into the bloodstream, from where it can travel to wreak havoc elsewhere.
The Max Planck researchers still don’t know if the cancer cell just sneaks through the hole, or if the death of the blood-vessel cells somehow allows another form of access, but they do know that disabling the Death Receptor effectively blocks the spread of cancer, suggesting the possibility of preventing metastases.
When the researchers genetically modified animals to disable the Death Receptor, fewer metastases occurred, and fewer blood-vessel cells died.
"This mechanism could be a promising starting point for treatments to prevent the formation of metastases," said lead author Stefan Offermanns, in a press release put out by the Max Planck Institute.
While this research is certainly interesting and offers hope of a kind of end-run around cancer’s mechanisms, it is still at a very early stage. And crucially, it’s not yet certain what the side effects of switching off the Death Receptor might be. Although, given the name, it’s unlikely that they’ll be anything good.
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