Northwestern University researchers have identified a new compound that stops the spread of cancer cells, which is what makes the disease lethal. Typically, the primary cancer tumor can be treated with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and won’t cause death.
“What kills people is when cancer spreads to other organs, such as when breast cancer spreads to the brain, liver, lungs or bones,” said Dr. Sui Huang, an associate professor of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in a press release.
The newly identified compound acts like a “dirty time bomb” against metastasizing cells and “could potentially result in a better outcome for patients with solid tumor cancers with high potential to spread to other organs,” she said.
Working with colleagues from the National Cancer Institute, University of Kansas and the National Center for Advancing Translational Science, Northwestern scientists stopped tumors from spreading in multiple animal models. Mice treated with the compound, called metarrestin, had fewer metastatic tumors in the lung and liver, and lived longer than mice that didn’t receive the treatment, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
While cancer survival rates have improved in the last 20 years due to earlier diagnosis and combinational treatments, rates for people with metastatic cancer haven’t changed much.
“Many drugs are aimed at stopping cancer growth and killing cancer cells,” said study co-author Juan Marugan of the NIH's NCATS in a statement. “However, there is no single approved drug specifically aimed at treating metastasis. Our results show metarrestin is a very promising agent that we should continue to investigate against metastasis.”
Metarrestin could potentially be effective for patients as part of a combinational therapy after cancer surgery. Since advanced cancers are difficult to remove with surgery, doctors usually give chemotherapy in an attempt to kill undetected cancer cells and prevent the cancer from returning.
“This represents a new strategy for developing anti-cancer drugs,” Huang said. “It’s seeking one compound that can potentially affect multiple relevant targets that are promoting metastasis.”
In previous research, Huang had discovered a complex marker called the perinucleolar compartment (PNC) that indicates cancer cells’ ability to transform into metastasizing “multiple-headed monsters,” as she calls them.
PNCs are only found in cancer cells and in a higher number of cells in advanced cancer when it has spread to other areas in the body. The more cancer cells with PNCs in a tumor, the more likely it will spread.
Researchers tested 140,000 compounds against PNC, searching for one that caused total annihilation. They discovered metarrestin significantly inhibited metastasis in human breast cancer, prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer that had been grafted into mice.
Researchers plan to submit metarrestin to the Food and Drug Administration for approval as an investigational drug in the near future, with the goal of launching a clinical trial.