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Monday, 25 September, 2000, 23:12 GMT 00:12 UK
New evidence of 'cancer's barcode'
cancer cells
Cancer cells can migrate to distant parts of the body
Scientists trying to work out how cells, even cancer cells, manage to migrate through the body, may have found an explanation.

It has often puzzled doctors how cancer cells can break off a tumour in one location and manage to locate and start growing in another type of tissue.

This process is called metastasis, and often makes the cancer much harder to treat with drugs and radiotherapy.

Particular types of cancer often end up spreading to form secondary tumours only in certain other tissues.

'Cell trafficking' pinpointed

Dr Daniel Hammer, from the University of Pennsylvania, US, believes his team may have pinpointed a key mechanism which controls how cells moving through the bloodstream "choose" at which point to exit.

This process, called "cell trafficking", is vital to a number of normal body functions, such as the way the immune system responds to attack.

Dr Hammer, reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said that it was the properties of a few molecules on the surface of the molecule which dictate when the cell will leave the blood stream.

As the cell bounces along a vein, these molecules form bonds with cell receptors lying on the walls.

The combination of molecules on the surface of the cell will mean it is either released to continue its journey, or held long enough for it to pass through the wall of the blood vessel into surrounding tissues.

Dr Hammer said: "For cells to exit the bloodstream, you need just the right adhesion.

'Postcode efficiency'

"It can't be too tight, or the cells will bind to the vessel and never let go. It can't be too weak, or the blood cell will just pass on by."

He said that the combination of molecules on the cell surface worked as efficiently as a postcode or barcode when it comes to identifying and directing cells to the right location.

His experiments used a computer to mimic the adhesion between a cell carried in the bloodstream and the surface of a blood vessel wall.

A spokesman for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in the UK said that the research could be helpful.

"Cancer researchers have known for sometime that certain cancer cells are more likely to spread to certain tissues than others.

"Dr Hammer and colleagues appear to have identified a means that could help explain this phenomenon.

"Scientists here at Imperial Cancer Research Fund are trying to unravel the exact mechanisms involved in cancer spread and Dr Hammer's research certainly offers new clues."

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11 Apr 00 | Health
Drug hope for cancer patients
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