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New understanding of cell movement may yield ways to brake cancer's spread

From birth until death, our cells migrate: nerve cells make their vital connections, embryonic cells move to the proper places to form organs, immune cells zero in to destroy pathogenic organisms, and cancer cells metastasize, spreading deadly disease through the body. Scientists studying these migrations didn't know how cells determined where to go. Until now.

A Burnham Institute study has identified a fragment of a protein that senses chemicals that induce a cell to move into the right direction. Guided by this fragment, the molecular machinery needed for cell movement begins accumulating at the leading edge, or front of a cell in response to a variety of chemical messengers, and begins the directed process of migration. The study, led by associate professor and Burnham Cancer Center Acting Director Kristiina Vuori, M.D., Ph.D., appears in the August issue of Nature Cell Biology.

The finding is the first to determine the molecule responsible for internally choreographing directed cell migration. The experiments were conducted in several widely used laboratory models, but the molecule exists in nearly all animals, from roundworms to mammals, and likely has a conserved function throughout species. Knowing exactly what triggers cellular migration can help develop treatments that halt cancer metastasis and immune disorders like arthritis and asthma.

"Previous studies by us and others have identified how a migrating cell 'gets its wheels' and, mechanistically, is able to move. In this study, we have now determined how these wheels become pointed in the right direction", said Vuori. "We now know this is done using a protein that holds true in most cellular systems. Seeing how this process directs cells can help us better address a host of diseases that result from too little or too much cell movement, or from cells moving in the wrong direction and to the wrong place."

Dr. Vuori and her team found a molecule called DOCK180, a key signaling
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Source:Burnham Institute


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