Research Roundup: Cancer Metastasis, Marathon Training, Fibromyalgia and More

dropper depositing pink liquid into row of test tubes

There are plenty of great scientific research stories out this week. Here’s a look at just a few of them.

The 4 Elements of Cancer Metastasis

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Kansas Cancer Center conducted a literature review of 10,000 scientific publications about cancer metastasis. In the process, they identified four key elements of cancer metastasis. They published their findings in the journal Cancer Research.

The four hallmarks of metastasis, they found were: motility and invasion; modulation of the microenvironment; plasticity; and the ability to colonize. Typically, metastasis is believed to be the cause of up to 90% of cancer deaths. It also makes treatment difficult. Identifying the elements of metastasis has been complicated by the heterogeneity of cancer cells and the broad spectrum of interactions they have with other molecules and cells.

“Metastasis is a highly complex pathological process,” stated Douglas Hurst, assistant professor in the UAB Department of Pathology. “Increased specificity in defining the underlying principles is important to better understand and interpret the literature to move forward in the development of therapeutic interventions.”

Marathon Training Reverses Blood Vessel Aging

For years, people training to run marathons—races 26.2 miles long—have touted the health advantages. Recent research from researchers at the University College London (UCL) (UK) found that people training for a marathon for the first time appears to reverse the aging of major blood vessels. Older and slower runners benefit the most. The research was presented at EuroCMR 2019, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).

“Novice runners who trained for six months and completed their first marathon had a four-year reduction in arterial age and a 4 mmHg drop in systolic blood pressure,” stated Anish Bhuva, author of the study and a British Heart Foundation Fellow at UCL. “This is comparable to the effect of medication, and if maintained translates to approximately 10% lower risk of stroke over a lifetime.”

The research included 139 healthy first-time marathon runners between the ages of 21 and 69. They were advised to utilize a first-time finisher training program. They ran approximately 6 to 13 miles a week for six months ahead of finishing the 2016 or 2017 London Marathon. They were given MRI and ultrasound heart and blood vessel scans before they started training and two weeks after finishing the marathon, as well as a fitness test and blood pressure and heart rate tests.

Breakthrough in 3D Printing Opens Way for Complex Organ Bioprinting

There have been a number of advances in using 3D bioprinting to create organs. The organs are useful in models for developing new drugs, but are not yet ready to be used for actual transplants. Researchers with Rice University recently developed a new approach resulting in “exquisitely entangled vascular networks that mimic the body’s natural passageways for blood, air, lymph and other vital fluids.” The research was published in the journal Science.

“One of the biggest road blocks to generating functional tissue replacements has been our inability to print the complex vasculature that can supply nutrients to densely populated tissues,” stated Jordan Miller of Rice University. “Further, our organs actually contain independent vascular networks—like the airways and blood vessels of the lung or the bile ducts and blood vessels in the liver. These interpenetrating networks are physically and biochemically entangled, and the architecture itself is intimately related to tissue function. Ours is the first bioprinting technology that addresses the challenge of multivascularization in a direct and comprehensive way.”

Working with Kelly Stevens of the University of Washington (UW) and 15 collaborators from Rice, UW, Duke University, Rowan University and Nervous System, a design company in Somerville, Mass., they developed a new open-source bioprinting technology called SLATE, which stands for stereolithography apparatus for tissue engineering. It uses bioprinting, or additive manufacturing, to create soft hydrogels one layer at a time. It uses a liquid pre-hydrogel solution that solidifies when exposed to blue light. A digital light processing projector displays sequential 2D slices of the structure, with pixel sizes ranging from 10-50 microns. Each layer solidifies, then an overhead arm adjusts the 3D gel enough to expose liquid to the next image from the projector. The key breakthrough was the introduction of food dyes that absorb blue light.

Gut Bacteria and Psychiatric Disorders

There is increasing interest in the role the microbiome—all the bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in our bodies—plays in human health. Although there has been some research into the microbiome in a broad variety of diseases, not all of which are obvious, psychiatric disorders would seem the least likely. But researchers with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia demonstrated that transplanting gut bacteria from an animal vulnerable to social stress to a non-stressed animal can cause vulnerable behavior in the animal receiving the transplant. They published their research in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

“In rats that show depressive-type behavior in a laboratory test, we found that stress changes their gut microbiome—the population of bacteria in the gut,” stated Seema Bhatnagar, study leader and neuroscientist at CHOP. “Moreover, when we transplanted bacteria from those stress-vulnerable rats into rats that had not been stressed, the recipient animal showed similar behavior.”

The researchers, many of whom were members of the PennCHOP Microbiome Program, a collaboration between scientists at CHOP and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed the microbiomes of the rat poop from various groups—vulnerable rats, resilient rats, a non-stressed control group, and a placebo group. The vulnerable rats had higher proportions of specific bacteria, such as Clostridia, than the other groups. In addition to behavioral changes in rats receiving transplants, patterns of brain inflammatory processes shifted in the recipient groups.

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Metformin Might Be Able to Treat Fibromyalgia Pain

Fibromyalgia is considered one of the most common disorders causing chronic pain and disability. The causes of fibromyalgia aren’t known and there are no specific diagnostic tests or treatments other than pain medications. Researchers led by a group from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found they could significantly decrease pain in fibromyalgia patients with insulin resistance medication metformin. They published their research in the journal PlosOne.

“Earlier studies discovered that insulin resistance causes dysfunction within the brain’s small blood vessels,” stated Miguel Pappolla, UTMB professor of neurology. “Since this issue is also present in fibromyalgia, we investigated whether insulin resistance is the missing link in this disorder. We showed that most—if not all—patients with fibromyalgia can be identified by their A1c levels, which reflects average blood sugar levels over the past two to three months.”

The team, which included researchers throughout the U.S., identified patients referred to a subspecialty pain medicine clinic for widespread muscular/connective tissue pain. Those diagnosed with fibromyalgia were split into smaller groups by age. Using age-matched controls, they found that the A1c levels of the fibromyalgia patients were significantly higher. When these patients were prescribed metformin, commonly prescribed for pre-diabetics, people with insulin resistance, and some type 2 diabetics, they showed dramatic decreases in their pain levels.

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