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Cancer cells: A closer look

What distinguishes a tumour cell from a healthy cell? Researchers are trying to answer this question as precisely as possible. Certain differences could eventually lead to new therapies.

Understanding tumours

‘We are looking very closely at differences between tumour cells and healthy cells,’ explains Peter ten Dijke, professor of Cellular Biology at LUMC. Tumour cells often contain active substances other than those found in healthy cells. In other cases there is either more or less of a particular molecule than is normal. ‘When we understand which molecular cell routes the tumour uses to grow and spread, we can intervene by targeting that process with medications.’

Liquid biopsies

Whether a particular drug works on a tumour depends on the genetic mutations that take place in the tumour cells. ‘A tumour does not consist of identical mutated cells, as we used to believe,’ explains Ten Dijke. When you cut off a piece of the tumour and examine those cells, you don’t obtain a complete picture of the whole tumour. At the moment, we’re doing a lot of research to develop liquid biopsies. This sort of biopsy takes advantage of the fact that some tumour cells always find their way into the blood stream. ‘The idea is that these circulating tumour cells are an accurate reflection of the tumour and that they can provide information about which drugs will be effective in this patient. We are currently implementing this in patient care,’ says Judith Bovée, who is professor of Pathology.

Rare tumours in bone and soft tissue

One of Bovée’s areas of research is sarcomas, which are rare tumours in bones and supporting tissue surrounding organs. In February 2017, she received a Vici grant worth 1.5 million euros to conduct research on this form of cancer. Some 800 people in the Netherlands are diagnosed with a sarcoma each year, about 300 of whom are treated at LUMC. When necessary, the tumour is operated on to remove it, but sometimes the tumour is too large for removal or it has spread.

‘We want to study how sarcomas start to develop. So in the lab we produce stem cells with the genetic defect found in sarcomas. Then we look at what exactly goes wrong in the cell that makes it divide uncontrollably. In this way we hope to find clues for new therapies.’

A sarcoma patient talking with the radiotherapist.

Existing testing methods

Since sarcomas are rare, it is relatively expensive to develop new medicines for them. A good way to find new and better treatments is to test existing drugs that have been developed for other diseases and other types of cancer to evaluate their effectiveness on sarcomas. That entails less research, because the side effects of these drugs are already known. ‘For example, we are now conducting research together with the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research (LACDR) to see whether existing drugs inhibit the growth of sarcomas or render them more susceptible to chemotherapy.'

Bone cancer patient care at LUMC (in Dutch)

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