Treating cancer can be tricky for one, cancer cells tend to spread quickly, known as metastasis — a behavior which sometimes goes undetected. As such, cancer remains a global problem, causing nearly 1 in every 6 deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. 90 percent of those deaths occur when the cancer has metastasized. But what if the spread of cancer cells could be prevented?


Cancer cells: Cancer cells are cells that divide relentlessly, forming solid tumours or flooding the blood with abnormal cells. Cell division is a normal process used by the body for growth and repair. A parent cell divides to form two daughter cells, and these daughter cells are used to build new tissue, or to replace cells that have died as a result of ageing or damage. Healthy cells stop dividing when there is no longer a need for more daughter cells, but cancer cells continue to produce copies. They are also able to spread from one part of the body to another in a process known as metastasis.
Metastasis: Metastasis is the medical term for cancer that spreads to a different part of the body from where it started. When this happens, doctors say the cancer has “metastasized.” Other names for metastasis are “metastatic cancer” and “stage 4 cancer.” Sometimes the term “advanced cancer” also describes metastatic disease, but this isn’t always true. For instance, “locally advanced” cancer is not the same as metastatic cancer. It describes cancer that has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes but not throughout the body.

A team of researchers, led by scientists at the Queen Mary University of London, has made a breakthrough in our understanding of how cancer cells are able to spread around the body and form deadly new tumors. The team found that two proteins work together, exhibiting an unusual behavior that helps keep the cells alive.

Where all this started?

Hasini Jayatilaka was a sophomore at the Johns Hopkins University working in a lab studying cancer cells when she noticed that when the cells become too densely packed, some would break off and start spreading. She wasn’t sure what to make of it, until she attended an academic conference and heard a speaker talking about bacterial cell behaving the same way. Yet when she went through the academic literature to see if anyone had written about similar behavior in cancer cells, she found nothing. Seven years later, the theory Jayatilaka developed early in college is now a bona fide discovery that offers significant promise for cancer treatment.


Jayatilaka and a team at Johns Hopkins discovered the biochemical mechanism that tells cancer cells to break off from the primary tumor and spread throughout the body, a process called metastasis. Some 90 percent of cancer deaths are caused when cancer metastasizes. The team also found that two existing, FDA-approved drugs can slow metastasis significantly.

The problem is that we don’t fully understand how cancer cells are actually able to stay alive once they break away from a tumor. When attached to a tumor, they’re relatively protected, but when free-floating, they should be more vulnerable to the body’s defenses. This new research identifies two molecules central to their survival, providing researchers with new targets for future treatments.

The researchers studied cancer cells in cultures, mice and zebrafish. Carefully watching for changes in the cells, the team spotted a type of molecule, called an integrin, behaving very strangely indeed.

What is integrin?

Integrins are transmembrane that facilitate cell extracellular matrix (ECM) adhesion. Upon ligand binding, integrins activate signal transduction pathways that mediate cellular signals such as regulation of the cell cycle, organization of the intracellular cytoskeleton, and movement of new receptors to the cell membrane.The presence of integrins allow rapid and flexible responses to events at the cell surface.