PHILADELPHIA - Ben Stanger, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and Andrew Rhim, MD, a Gastroenterology Fellow in the Stanger lab, discovered that pancreatic cancer cells in an animal model begin to spread before clinically obvious tumor tissue is detected. What's more, they showed that inflammation enhances cancer progression in part by facilitating a cellular transformation that leads to entry of cancer cells into the circulation. They report their findings this week in Cell.
Metastasis has been difficult to study because it involves a series of unpredictable events. To capture these events, the team developed a sensitive method to tag and track pancreatic epithelial cells in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer. Tagged cells invaded and entered the bloodstream unexpectedly early, before overt malignancy could be detected by rigorous analysis of tissue slides.
Pancreatic cancer is among the most lethal of cancers, with no real treatments, and at the time of diagnosis up to three-quarters of patients have metastatic disease, says Stanger. Little is known about how pancreatic cancer cells spread, "What leads to this are rare events that are hard to catch in tissues. Small numbers of cells break off tumors and move, but how can we find them?"
These wandering cells are associated with a phenomenon called the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT). This change in cell motility is an important process during the development of embryos. But when the transition is aberrantly reactivated in adults it can have dire physiological consequences, leading to cancer metastasis as well as other disease processes. Epithelial cells form a covering or lining of a body surface and are the type of cell from which most solid tumors arise. However, when a molecular switch is turned off or absent, epithelial cells acquire characteristics of another
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University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine