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These squiggles could hold the key to better cancer treatment

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland scientists have made a discovery that could lead to more effective treatments for throat and cervical cancers.

Researchers at Queen’s University in Belfast have found that non-cancerous tissue surrounding cancers of the throat and cervix can play a role in controlling the spread of the disease.

The team said the development could result in new treatments which would stop cancer cells spreading to healthy cells.

It is the latest study done at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Belfast City Hospital that puts Northern Ireland at the forefront of global cancer research.

Between 80 and 100 women in Northern Ireland are told they have cervical cancer every year and there are an average of 24 deaths annually from the disease.

There are 180 to 190 new cases of head and neck cancers diagnosed in Northern Ireland every year, including throat cancer, and an average 79 deaths every year.

The research, led by Professor Dennis McCance (below), has just been published in the European Molecular Biology Organization Journal.

Prof McCance said: “Cancer spreads as the result of two-way communication between the cancer cells in a tumour and the non-cancerous cells in the surrounding tissue.

“We already know that cancer cells are intrinsically programmed to invade neighbouring healthy tissue.

“But the cells in the non-cancerous tissue are also programmed to send messages to the cancer cells, actively encouraging them to invade.

“If these messages — sent from the healthy tissue to the tumour — can be switched-off, then the spread of the cancer will be inhibited.”

Prof McCance said the research has discovered that a protein in non-cancerous tissue has the ability to either open or close the path of communication between the healthy tissue and the tumour.

“When the Retinoblastoma protein (Rb) in non-cancerous tissue is activated, this leads to a decrease in factors that encourage invasion by cancer cells. And so, the cancer doesn’t spread,” he said.

The Rb protein is found in both cancerous and non-cancerous tissue. Its importance in regulating the growth of cancer cells from within tumours is known, but this is the first time scientists have identified the role of the Rb found in healthy tissue in encouraging or discouraging the spread of cancer.

The research was conducted using three-dimensional tissue samples, grown in Prof McCance’s lab, to replicate the connecting tissue, known as stroma, found around cancers of the throat and cervix.

Prof McCance said: “Current treatments for cancer focus on targeting the tumour itself, in order to kill the cancer cells before they spread.

“This discovery opens the door to develop new treatments that would target the normal tissue surrounding a tumour, as opposed to the tumour itself.

“The implications of this discovery could go far beyond throat and cervical cancer, and that is something we plan to investigate further,” he added.

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