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Stanford University School of Medicine

Cancer cells spread by “disguising themselves,” study shows

A team of Swedish researchers discovered what may be a key component in how cancer spreads throughout the body: by masquerading as immune cells! Sneaky little rogues.

The study was published yesterday in the journal Oncogene and was conducted primarily by researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. The researchers were investigating the links between inflammation and metastasis when they learned that an inflammation protein called TGF-beta, normally found only on white blood cells, attaches itself to the surface of cancer cells. The protein both attracts them to the lymphatic system and gains them entrance into it.

Scientists have known that cancer often uses the lymphatic system (a network of nodes and vessels that is part of the immune system) to travel to different regions of the body during metastasis, which is the primary way cancer becomes fatal. Swollen lymph nodes, which can be felt on the neck, can indicate metastasis in cancer patients. For breast cancer, which the researchers focused on, infiltration of the lymph system is the earliest sign of metastasis and the most powerful prognostic factor.

Do the cancer cells supplement their masquerade with other characteristics of immune cells? That's the subject for future research, says Jonas Fuxe, PhD, a study author quoted in a press release. He also notes the significance of the results: "The possibility of preventing or slowing down the spread of cancer cells via the lymphatic system is an attractive one, as it could reduce the risk of metastasis to other organs."

Previously: New 'decoy' protein blocks cancer from spreading, Studying the drivers of metastasis to combat cancer, and Using photo acoustics technology to increase accuracy of lymph node screens for cancer

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