Dr David Shorthouse, Postdoctoral Bye Fellow in Biochemistry, is part of a team of Cambridge scientists who have discovered that cancer cells ‘hijack’ a process used by healthy cells to spread around the body, completely changing current ways of thinking around cancer metastasis (Nature, 29 September 2022).
Metastasis is the process by which cancer spreads around the body, and until now what triggers this process has remained elusive. The team, based at the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Cambridge Institute, have shown in a range of cancers that removal of a single gene called NALCN is enough to activate the metastasis cascade. To their surprise, this process is not limited to cancer though; when they blocked NALCN activity in normal cells they also saw healthy cells leaving their original location and joining other organs in the body – integrating and becoming part of the healthy tissue. This has completely changed how metastasis is perceived – previously it was thought to be a cancer-specific process, but here the team have shown that cancer actually hijacks an existing normal cellular process in order to spread. Now that they have identified NALCN as a cause of metastasis, they are looking for existing drugs that may be able to restore normal NALCN function, and prevent metastasis in patients in the future.