Researchers have discovered how and why cancer tumors grow

How tumors form and why cancer spreads are major and long-standing questions experts need to answer in their quest to combat the disease. Two University of Iowa studies, which made real-time recordings of the progress of cancerous breast tissue cells, have now discovered that cancer cells actively seek out and pull in healthy cells.

Cancerous cells send out cables of sorts, grabbing their neighbors both healthy and cancerous, and only five percent of cancer cells are needed to form tumors, according to a statement.

“It’s not like things sticking to each other,” said David Soll, biology professor at the UI and corresponding author on the paper, published in the American Journal of Cancer Research. “It’s that these cells go out and actively recruit. It’s complicated stuff, and it’s not passive. No one had a clue that there were specialized cells in this process, and that it’s a small number that pulls all the rest in.”

Cancerous cells that form tumors are known as tumorigenic cells, and the new knowledge acquired by the studies can help to pinpoint what sorts of antibodies are best suited to eliminating them.

The Monoclonal Antibody Research Institute and the Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank, created by the National Institutes of Health and directed by Soll, together contain one of the world’s largest collections of antibodies that could be used for the anti-cancer testing.

Only cancer cells do it – but why?

A previous, related study showed that only cancer cells behave in this recruiting behavior, probing for other cells, pulling them in and enlarging tumors.

“There’s nothing but tumorigenic cells in the bridge (between cells),” Soll said, “and that’s the discovery. The tumorigenic cells know what they’re doing. They make tumors.”


University of Iowa researchers have documented how cancerous tumors form by tracking in real time the movement of individual cells in 3-D. They report that just 5 percent of cancer cells are needed to form tumors, a ratio that heretofore had been unknown. (Credit: Soll Laboratory)

As evil as cancer seems to all of us, there must be a reason for the behavior that goes beyond malicious intent.

The researchers posit that deep in our primitive past, the cells were programmed to form embryos. They seems to be now recruiting other cells to make tissue that then forms layered, self-sustaining architecture.

“You might want one big tumor capable of producing the tissue it needs to form a micro-environment,” Soll explained. “It’s as if it’s building its own defenses against the body’s efforts to defeat them.”


Feature Image: Screenshot from YouTube/University of Iowa