'Eavesdropping' on Cancer Cell Signaling Could Lead to New Treatment Options


U.K. researchers developed a new “eavesdropping” technique that could lead to breakthroughs in treating cancer. The technique allows scientists to decipher how the cells in tumors are communicating with each other.

The research, which was published in Nature Methods was based on miniature tumors known as organoids that were grown in a lab. The research allowed the scientists to analyze different signaling molecules at once in individual cells within replicas of patients’ tumors. By understanding how the cells in the tumor environment are communicating, the researchers believe this could reveal how some tumors are able to avoid detection by the body’s immune system and also develop resistance to some treatments. The research could also provide doctors with a better understanding of what treatment types work best with some tumors. The U.K. scientists suggest that physicians could actually test treatments on a “bespoke replica of a patient’s tumor before prescribing them.”

The “eavesdropping” technique, which uses magnetic fields, analyzes individual cells in an organoid which mimics the behavior of a tumor for signaling molecules, which are messages sent to other cells in the tumor telling them how to behave, the scientists said. The researchers tested this technique in bowel cancer cells and were able to simultaneously detect 28 key signaling molecules, across six different cell types, in over 1 million cells. They found indications that the cancer cells themselves, as well as immune cells and connective tissue, had ‘rewired’ the normal signaling networks of bowel tissue, allowing tumors to grow unchecked, the research team said.

Chris Tape, lead researcher of the study at University College London (UCL), said organoids are revolutionizing cancer research by allowing scientists to test experimental new drugs on lifelike tumor models.

“But crucially, this new technique helps scientists to understand why a treatment works or not, by revealing in unprecedented detail how cells are talking to each other,” Tape said in a statement.

The next steps in this research will look for ways to disrupt communications between the cells in order to stimulate responses to medications. The research team will test this technique in multiple cancer types.

Emily Armstrong, research information manager at Cancer Research UK, said having a better understanding of this complex communication could “reveal secrets” of how cancer can come back following treatment and spread throughout the body.

“While this technique is in the early stages of development right now, in the future we may be able to grow replicas of individual patients’ tumors, to identify early signs that a drug won’t work for them so we can personalize their treatment plan. We hope this could one day help more people to survive cancer,” Armstrong said in a statement.

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