Cancer cells  (Source: McGill University)
Researchers discover non-adhesive protein that allows cancer cells to infect healthy tissue

Researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University have discovered how tumor cells infect healthy tissue, which is a breakthrough that can help prevent cancer cells from spreading. 

Dr. Deborah Maret, lead author of the study and research associate at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University, along with Dr. David Colman, co-author of the study and director at the Montreal Neurological Institute, and Dr. Rolando Del Maestro, co-author of the study and director of The Brain Tumour Research Centre, have found that a certain protein which "glues" cells together has a non-adhesive version of itself that exists on tumor cells, allowing cancer cells to break apart and spread to healthy tissue. 

These certain proteins are called cadherins, and they reside on the surface of cells. They bind cells together, kind of like glue, in order to hold tissue structures together properly. Prior to this study, it was not clear what happened to cells and the adhesive cadherins in tumor growth and metastases. 

"We were concerned that previous research showed that N-cadherin, an adhesive molecule, was important for both normal tissue organization, as well as tumor metastases," said Colman. "We therefore decided to further investigate this apparent paradox."

What they found was a non-adhesive version of N-cadherin, which is called proNcad. It exists only on tumor cells, but is seen in much higher numbers on the more aggressive melanoma, brain tumor cells, breast cancer and prostate tumor cells. 

"It appears that although total N-cadherin levels remain constant, the higher levels of the non-adhesive proNcad promote detachment, tumor cell migration and invasion," said Maret. "This supports an overall conclusion that non-adhesive [proNcad] and adhesive [Ncad] forms of cadherins co-exist on tumor cell surfaces, but it is the ratio between these functionally opposite molecules that directly dictates the invasion potential of tumor cells."

N-cadherin is not a new discovery, but because the differences between Ncad and proNcad are so minuscule, previous studies on the matter just assumed all Ncad's on tumor cell surfaces were adhesive. This latest study from the researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital is unique because it has recognized that there are non-adhesive cadherins as well, which allows tumor cells to detach from other cells and infect healthy tissue. 

The next step in this research is to measure the ratios of proNcad and Ncad on cell surfaces, which could help researchers develop diagnostic tools that can help prevent cancer cells from spreading. 

"As a brain tumor surgeon, I know that stopping cancer cells from migrating is critical for patient survival," said Del Maestro. "We are determined to improve treatment options for patients. We have already introduced new neurosurgical methods and technologies that are unique in North America and are spearheading multidisciplinary initiatives to advance brain tumor research."

This study was published in the journal Neoplasia.

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