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Duke Researchers: Cancer Cells, Blood Vessels Communicate

Posted January 26, 2004

— According to the American Cancer Society, 1,500 people die from cancer each day inthe United States. Duke researchers made an important find that could reduce that number.

Researchers discovered two-way communication taking place between blood vessels and tumors. It is a significant step in the war on cancer.

Through a tiny window in the skin of a rat, Duke cancer researchers were able to witness an interesting dance between cancer cells and blood vessels. Tumor cells begin as round dots, then stretch out into columns seeking a blood supply.

"Once they reach the vessel, they actually wrap around it and form a cuff of cells around the vessel," researcher Dr. Mark Dewhirst said.

New vessels then form to feed the growing tumor. It is already known that cancer cells send signals to blood vessels, but until now, researchers did not know blood vessels talked back.

"So the tumor cell sends out a signal that says 'I need more blood vessels' and the thelial cell, which lines the blood vessel, sends something back to the tumor to say, 'We're over here, or hang in, we'll be there soon," Dewhirst explained.

Dewhirst and Dr. Siqing Shan hope to find out how that communication is taking place. If they do, they might be able to stop it.

"If the tumor cell doesn't get that signal back in an appropriate fashion, that tumor cell doesn't know what to do and it just dies," Dewhirst said.

"The discovery could be significant in the fight against cancer metastasis. That is when cells break away from one tumor site and circulate through the blood stream or lymphatic system creating a new tumor. When that happens, the cancer is extremely difficult to treat.

"It's the metastasis that usually kills patients," Dewhirst said.

Research is moving from animal models to human cells. It is too early to tell what it may mean for cancer patients of today, but it is clearly a hopeful sign in fighting the disease.

Researchers in the U.S. spend billions of dollars each year looking for the causes and cures for cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is the most researched type of cancer.

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