New Canadian technology tracks cancer's spread


cancer researchWhen it comes to cancer, it often isn't the initial tumour that kills. It's the cancer cells that migrate and spawn new tumours. Now scientists at the Robarts Research Centre in London, Ontario, have devised a new way of following cancer cells as they spread that may help them learn how to stop them.

Researchers have long tried to understand the process of cancer spread -- called metastasis -- hoping to find a way of stopping this destructive process. They know that many of the most common cancers, including breast and lung cancer and melanoma, can metastasize to the brain and spawn new and potentially fatal tumours. In fact, it's estimated that as many as 22 to 30 per cent of breast cancer patients will have their breast tumours spread to their brain.

Now Robarts researchers have created a powerful new technology that allows them to watch for the first time how single breast cancer cells migrate from the body into the brain.

"These are the sorts of ticking time bombs that we know exist in tissues but have never been able to be seen this way before," explains Dr. Paula Foster of the Robarts Research Centre.

The process involves injecting small iron particles into cancer cells in mice and then following their travels through the body using a specially designed MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging unit.

Unlike previous methods that required researchers to sacrifice animals to follow cancer spread and tumour growth or to perform invasive biopsies, the new Robarts technology can follow cancer cells in live animals, over 30 days or longer. The pictures produced by the MRI show cancer cells moving into the brain, where some die off, some go dormant but where others grow into new tumours in the brain.

"What's really important is for us to understand why some of these cells do develop tumours and why others remain in the brain," says Foster.

Breast cancer researcher Ann Chambers of the London Regional Cancer Centre says the technology provides for the first time a way of tracking single cancer cells and could help scientists devise ways to stop them.

"It will give us the ability to test what genes are important, what drugs actually work, how the drugs work," she says. "And then you can take that information to patients and hopefully treat this disease a little better."

And it's not just cancer researchers who will benefit from this new Canadian-developed MRI technology. It will also help researchers track insulin-producing cells injected into the kidneys of those with diabetes. And it's being used to see how the body tries to repair spinal cord injuries.

It's all a way of allowing doctors to see old diseases from a very new vantage point.

source - CTV 


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