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Human face holds clues to cancer development

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Posted June 20, 2013

chase-runBy studying the development of the face scientists at King’s have identified a cell movement mechanism which could shed light on how cancer cells spread through the body, providing a target for possible treatments.

In collaboration with UCL, Andrea Streit, Professor of Developmental Neurobiology at King’s, studied the different cells which make up the face and head during development  and discovered a ‘chase-and-run’ mechanism by which different cells interact in order to migrate around the body. The behaviour is similar to how cancer cells interact with their environment and spread around the body, giving clues to the possible causes of metastasis (secondary cancers).

Published in Nature Cell Biology, the study focused on the interaction between two types of embryonic cells: neural crest cells, which form bones and other tissues of the face and are often likened to cancer cells due to their invasive nature, and placode cells, which contribute to sense organs and are epithelial in nature.

Scientists found that placode cells produce a signal which attracts neural crest cells enticing them to migrate in a particular direction. When the cells come into contact, the placode cells ‘run away’ taking the attracting signal with them, causing further migration of the neural crest cells.  Identifying this process, may point to a possible target for controlling and preventing the migration of comparable cancer cells.

Professor Streit said: ‘The head is made up from different cells of different embryonic origins, yet all its elements fall perfectly into the correct position. It is fascinating how cells coordinate their behaviour to achieve this. Our discovery of a ‘chase and run’ process explains how the interaction between neural crest and placodes result in tissue rearrangements, which ultimately ensure that sense organs and bones in the face develop in the right place.’

‘Surprisingly similar interactions occur during cancer progression or when cancer cells invade other tissues, so learning from the embryo may provide insight into the cellular and molecular mechanisms that control cancer cell behaviour and could offer a potential target for future treatments.’

Dr Roberto Mayor, UCL Department of Cell and Developmental Biology and lead author of the research, said: ‘The findings suggest an alternative way in which cancer treatments might work in the future if therapies can be targeted to the process of interaction between malignant and healthy cells to stop cancer cells from spreading and causing secondary tumours.’

Source: KCL

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