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Monday, 9 December, 2002, 14:11 GMT
'Signature' of spreading cancer
Cancer under microscope
Doctors are keen to find out whether cancer will spread
A "genetic fingerprint" could reveal whether common cancers are likely to spread around the body, say researchers.

It could mean that the most aggressive cancers could be spotted early and given more powerful treatments.

Once cancer has spread around the body and is growing on other tissues, it usually becomes far harder to treat.

However, scientists still do not understand the difference between a tumour that will not spread and one that will.

A tumour that "metastasises" needs to undergo a series of changes, including breaking into blood vessels to be transported away and developing a new blood supply to grow once cells have reached a new destination.

Previously, many scientists believe that this was a more or less random event, triggered by genetic changes within the tumour as it grew.

Early check

However, scientists from the US believe they may have unlocked a complex 17-gene signature which could tell doctors whether a tumour has what it takes to spread.

It could mean that samples taken from a cancer when a patient is diagnosed could be checked against this to predict whether doctors are dealing with a potentially-metastatic tumour.

Dr Sridhar Ramaswamy, a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said: "These results strongly support the idea that some primary tumours are pre-configured to metastasise, and that this propensity is detectable at the time of initial diagnosis."

Wide return

His theory was tested against a variety of tumour types, including breast, prostate and a type of brain cancer called medulloblastoma.

Despite the wide differences in these cancers, the same 17-gene signature remained a relatively accurate predictor of metastasis.

However, it did not work in lymphoma, the only "non-solid" tumour tested.

Dr Ramaswamy said: "We had no reason to believe that it was this broadly applicable."

Much cancer research work is aimed at "tailoring" treatments to the particular genetic makeup of tumours, both so that patients with responsive tumours can be spared harsh medications, and those with aggressive tumours can be given more potent chemotherapy.

Dr Mohammed El-Tanani from Queens University in Belfast told BBC News Online: "The results in the paper are very exiting, but from my point of view we need more investigation to study the specific function of each gene.

It would be good idea to validate the role of each gene in triggering the primary tumor to metastasise - using an animal model."

The research was published in the journal Nature Genetics.

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