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Researchers Transform Breast Cancer Cells Into Fat Cells to Stop Them From Spreading

Researchers from Switzerland’s University of Basel Department of Biomedicine were able to transform cancer cells into fat by exploiting a mechanism they use to spread throughout the body. The best part is, since the drugs they used in their research are already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the therapy could have a shorter path to clinical trials.

“We may be able to use one of cancer’s natural processes against itself.” – Professor Gerhard Christofori

In order for cancer cells to spread throughout the body, they undergo what’s called an epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT). When they do this they are behaving somewhat like stem cells, meaning they can more readily change into different types of cells.

The Swiss researchers describe how they implanted an aggressive form of human breast cancer into the mammary fat pads of female mice in a study published by the journal Cancer Cell. It goes on to explain how after that they injected the mice with the anti-diabetic drug Rosiglitazone and the cancer inhibitor Trametinib. As a result, they found that this innovative combination treatment caused some of the malignant cancer cells to transform into fat cells – a process called adipogenesis. This proves that the therapy can be used to prevent the formation of metastases in mice.

“The breast cancer cells that underwent an EMT not only differentiated into fat cells, but also completely stopped proliferating,” researcher Professor Gerhard Christofori said in a press release. “What’s more, the primary tumor did not metastasize. As far as we can tell from long-term culture experiments, the cancer cells-turned-fat cells remain fat cells and do not revert back to breast cancer cells.” Therefore, this successfully stops the tumor from invading the neighboring tissue and blood vessels, and no further metastases can form.

The left image shows green fluorescent protein (GFP)-expressing cancer cells (green) and a normal lipid-filled adipocyte (red) at the surface of a control-treated tumor. The right image shows GFP-expressing cancer cells (green) and GFP-expressing cancer cells that have converted into adipocytes (green + red = dark yellow) upon trans-differentiation therapy.
“The left image shows green fluorescent protein (GFP)-expressing cancer cells (green) and a normal lipid-filled adipocyte (red) at the surface of a control-treated tumor. The right image shows GFP-expressing cancer cells (green) and GFP-expressing cancer cells that have converted into adipocytes (green + red = dark yellow) upon trans-differentiation therapy.” – Department of Biomedicine, University of Basel.

The fact that this worked on human cancer cells, and that they are using already FDA approved drugs, gives a little extra hope that this treatment will actually make it to the clinical trial stage. The university press release states that “the researchers hypothesize that forcing a critical mass of cancerous cells to differentiate into fat cells could deplete a tumor’s ability to fight off conventional chemotherapy. Next steps involve testing the EMT-targeted differentiation approach in combination with existing chemotherapies and in other types of cancers.”

Christofori already envisions a future in which doctors use this treatment alongside other cancer therapies. He says, “In future, this innovative therapeutic approach could be used in combination with conventional chemotherapy to suppress both primary tumour growth and the formation of deadly metastases.” For now, the team continue to investigate whether this therapy could work combined with chemotherapy and whether it could apply to other types of cancers as well.

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