Therefore, one of the priorities in cancer research is to understand the mechanisms underlying this process. Metastasis occurs when tumour cells break away from the part of the body where cancer started to other parts of the body, invading nearby tissues and spreading to other body organs. Melanoma is one of the tumours with the highest ability to produce metastasis. Melanoma incidence has increased for the last decades as a consequence of higher sun exposure.
The study, described in 1 June 2015 issue of the journal Nature Medicine, has been led by Manel Esteller, professor of Genetics at the University of Barcelona (UB) and ICREA research professor at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL). It describes a mechanism that explains how tumour cells break off from the main tumour and travel to other tissues and organs, thus producing metastasis. In addition, it points out that metastatic cells’ may be susceptible to new molecular treatments.
“We compared patients’ original tumour cells with metastatic cells and we observed that the latter ones have a specific alteration in their genetic material. To be exact, they activate a gene which is silenced both in healthy and primary tumour cells”, explains Esteller, director of the Epigenetics and Cancer Biology Programme at IDIBELL. “This gene acts as a light bulb that guides tumour cells when they break away from the place where cancer first started”, says the researcher.
The gene, named TBC1D16, regulates powerful oncogenes like BRAF and EGFR. “It is particularly interesting —emphasizes Manel Esteller—, that metastatic melanoma gets addicted to these oncogenes, so target drugs, named BRAF and MEK inhibitors, are more effective”.