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How metastatic tumours manipulate their environment

Tumours act like mini-organs, manipulating their environment and using bodily processes to survive and metastasise. Through research by Erik Danen and his colleagues, we are learning more about the complex nature of tumour cells. In the Dutch newspaper NRC, the scientists discuss their findings.

Once tumors have started to spread, they are difficult to cure. Most people who die from cancer do so because of metastases rather than the primary tumor. It is therefore crucial to understand when and how cancer spreads. Recent research shows that this process is more complicated than previously thought.

Danen explains, for instance, that tumor cells do not always travel individually throughout the body. ‘They can also move in groups,’ he says. ‘In doing so, they exhibit collective behaviour, similar to a flock of starlings or a school of fish.’

Collaboration and specialisation

Tumours spread through the bloodstream. Danen uses physical models to investigate how clusters of tumour cells detach from the tissue and move towards blood vessels. They achieve this, among other ways, by secreting enzymes and exerting force on the surrounding tissue, he explains. ‘This allows the soft tumor cells to creep through the tissue like a droplet.’ Additionally, a tumour can manipulate its environment and thereby hide from, for example, immune therapy.

Crucial to our understanding is that tumours are not identical cells but rather diverse cell types that specialise in performing various tasks. ‘A tumor is not a lump of the same cells but actually a very complex mini-organ,’ says Danen.

Curious about how these insights could lead to new cancer treatments? Read the full article in NRC: A metastatic tumour is a complex mini-organ that takes over its entire environment (€, in Dutch).

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