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NZ study sheds light on cancer cell spread

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 21/12/2016

An Otago University study has shed new light on why and how cancer cells spread from primary tumours to other parts of the body.

The phenomenon, known as metastasis, causes about 90 per cent of all cancer deaths.

Lead authors Dr Aniruddha Chatterjee and Professor Mike Eccles say the findings could pave the way for new therapies that prevent melanoma and other cancers from their deadly seeding of secondary tumours.

The study, published in the international journal Oncotarget, investigated epigenetic changes in melanoma cells. Epigenetics involves changes to the way genes behave.

Dr Chatterjee says the research team compared primary and metastatic melanoma cells from the same patients.

He says they identified thousands of epigenetic changes and, crucially, several that were common to all the metastatic cells.

"We believe that these may be the key drivers that allow melanoma to metastasise," he said.

The team also identified a new function in melanoma of a gene called Early B Cell Factor 3 (EBF3).

They found the gene gained more DNA methylation when primary melanoma progressed to its metastatic version, and that the gene expressed itself highly in the latter.

When the researchers used molecular techniques that decreased EBF3 expression, both primary and metastatic melanoma cells grew less aggressively and behaved less invasively.

Dr Chatterjee said earlier searches for genetic, rather than epigenetic, drivers of metastasis had not been very fruitful.

Instead, the Otago researchers looked at the changes in the way genes in cancer cells were expressed, rather than changes to the genetic code itself.

He said that, unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes were reversible.

"So if we understand the key changes that underpin metastasis, then not only are we potentially able to monitor for their presence, but also to design new therapies to target and correct them to prevent metastasis of tumours."

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