The human body is made up of billions of cells which are the building blocks for our organs and tissues. The processes that regulate cell behaviors, such as growth or movement, are normally very orderly and controlled. However, cancer cells can escape this regulation and grow uncontrollably to form an initial (primary) tumour made up of lots of cancer cells.
Lung cancer affects millions of people each year and has the highest mortality rate of all cancers worldwide. This is because many patients get diagnosed when the cancer is at a late (advanced) stage and the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. This is called metastasis. During this process, cancer cells become more migratory to move away from the primary site and into the bloodstream to distant sites. In lung cancer, common sites for metastasis are the liver, brain, and adrenal glands in the kidneys.
The most effective treatment option for patients with lung cancer is surgery, however this is not available to patients once a cancer has spread. Other available options such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy only hope to control advanced disease, not cure it, and are associated with poor side effects. Unfortunately, patients with lung cancer are often at risk of other health conditions and have a higher risk of increased toxicities. Therefore, it is crucial to develop new therapies that are more specific and ‘targeted’ to reduce side effects. To do this, we need to fully understand how lung cancer cells become more migratory and metastasise (spread).
My research aims to understand how certain proteins (molecules within a cell that interact with each other to regulate cell behaviours) control the migration of lung cancer cells. One way to investigate this is to remove a protein of interest from cancer cells and test cell behaviours in their absence, such as migration. We have shown that one protein, called TIAM1, is more present in patients with advanced cancer and its activity in cells makes them more migratory. Therefore, cells that have higher amounts of TIAM1 can migrate faster, suggesting that TIAM1 is important in lung cancer cell movement. However, further work is still required to understand whether the role of TIAM1 in lung cancer migration is important in helping the cancer cells metastasise. We aim to test this by removing TIAM1 from cells in different mouse models and monitoring the mice to see if the cancer can still spread.
Having a more detailed understanding of how lung cancer cells move and spread will allow us to design more targeted therapies for patients with advanced lung cancer and improve their prognosis. As my research is funded by Cancer Research UK, all aspects of my work rely on charity funding. Therefore, I think it is key to communicate the important work researchers are doing in a way that is accessible to the people that are making it possible and to encourage further support.
By Lucy Ginn
Photo by Dean Ricciardi on Unsplash
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