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Seemingly invincible cancers stem cells reveal a weakness
Date:6/5/2014

red that the compounds kill by stressing the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) of EMT cells; non-EMT cells were unscathed because their ER was unaffected by these compounds. Feng also found that other chemicals that cause ER stress also similarly dispatched only the metastatic EMT cells. The obvious question was why these otherwise indestructible cells had such sensitive ERs.

A hint lies at the heart of EMT's physiology and function. Invasive cancer cells, like other mesenchymal cells, move by secreting large scaffolding proteins and other proteins that interact with the extracellular matrix, the structural support that holds neighboring cells together. Pumping out these proteins strains the cancer cells' ER to their limit. When Feng treated EMT cells with chemicals that further stressed their ER, the cells died. But when those cells' production of extracellular matrix proteins was artificially blocked, the cells were much less sensitive to the ER-stressing chemicals.

Feng's work points to one specific part of the process, called the PERK pathway, as being particularly important. This pathway helps cells survive the stress of secreting copious amounts of proteins, and in EMT cells, it is always active at a low level. In studying roughly 800 patient tumors (both primary and metastatic) across a range of cancer types, including breast, colon, gastric, and lung, Feng found that the expression of EMT genes was tightly correlated with PERK pathway activity.

"We've found that whenever you have EMT, the PERK pathway is more active," says Feng, who is the first author of the Cancer Discovery paper. "That means we might be able to use PERK pathway activity as a marker to help guide treatment, since tumors with higher PERK activity would likely be more sensitive to further ER stress."

As promising as these developments sound, Feng cautions that further work is needed before PERK screening could become mainstay of cancer diagnostics.

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Contact: Nicole Giese Rura
rura@wi.mit.edu
617-258-6851
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
Source:Eurekalert

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