My Australian friends have shared with me some great new research being done by Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in association with Monash Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne.
The research shows great potential – as cancer survivors the main anxiety we have is that after undergoing all that treatment they throw at us, at the end of it all we’re left wondering “Did they get it all? Or will it come back?” Our key concern is the possibility that the cancer cells could spread somewhere else in our body (called metastasis). That’s how I lost my mother and grandmother, so it was a very real concern to me.
Sneaky Cancer Cells
Dr Belinda Parker of the Metastasis Research Laboratory at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre says that they have discovered that the disease spreads secretly by switching off the interferon immune signalling and hiding in the blood stream. They are “quite excited by this because therapies that are currently already available can be used to switch this immune signal back on, and we’ve found that that actually prevents the spread of cancer to bone.”
In more simple terms, cancer cells produce signals, the same signals that are produced when we have a bacterial or a viral infection. Cells that lose these signals are the ones that can spread without detection by the immune system.
Because there are already clinical therapies for hepatitis, HIV, and other cancers like melanoma that can switch the lost signals back on and get the immune system to react to cancer cells, the chances are good that they will be able to create an interferon therapy for breast cancer patients whose tumors exhibit a loss of immune signals.
Dr Parker has proven that interferon therapies effectively reactivate the immune signal in mouse models of breast cancer.
“If we can stop the first spread to bone, then it is possible that we could prevent subsequent metastases to the brain, lung and liver,” Dr Parker said.
In the future (and they aren’t saying when), the pathology tests that determine whether a breast cancer tumor is driven by hormones, what stage it is and what grade it is, et cetera, may also include information about whether this particular tumor has lost its immune signals and, if so, that patient would then be treated with the therapies that switch the signals back on.
Dr Helen Zorbas is the CEO of Cancer Australia and, when interviewed, said that understanding how cancer spreads through the body is like the Holy Grail of medicine, she was excited by the new research.
Holy Grail indeed. Good work, Aussies!
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