New Zealand scientists said Wednesday that they might have opened the way to new cancer treatments with groundbreaking research on how the disease spreads.
The University of Otago research into why and how cancer cells spread from primary tumors to other parts of the body could lead to new therapies that prevent melanoma and other cancers from seeding potentially deadly secondary tumors.
The phenomenon, known as metastasis, causes about 90 percent of all cancer deaths.
Lead researchers Dr Aniruddha Chatterjee and Professor Mike Eccles investigated epigenetic changes in melanoma cells.
Epigenetics involved changes to the way genes behaved, such as being switched on or off through the addition of methyl groups to a gene's DNA segments.
The research team identified thousands of epigenetic changes and, crucially, several that were common to all the metastatic cells, that might be the key drivers that allowed melanoma to metastasise, Chatterjee said in a statement.
The team also identified a new function in melanoma of a gene called Early B Cell Factor 3 (EBF3).
"We found this gene gains more DNA methylation when primary melanoma progresses to its metastatic version, and that the gene expresses itself highly in the latter," said Chatterjee.
When the researchers used molecular techniques that decreased EBF3 expression, both primary and metastatic melanoma cells grew less aggressively and behaved less invasively.
Chatterjee said earlier searches for genetic, rather than epigenetic, drivers of metastasis had not been very fruitful.
Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible.
"So if we understand the key changes that underpin metastasis, then not only are we potentially able to monitor for their presence, but also to design new therapies to target and correct them to prevent metastasis of tumors," he said.