New therapy turns cancer cells into fat to stop it from spreading

Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland have hijacked cancer's cellular plasticity to turn the disease against itself.

Photo credit: BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP / Getty Images
  • In 2018, an estimated 627,000 women died from breast cancer worldwide.
  • Researchers recently discovered a drug combination that turned cancer cells into fat cells, preventing its proliferation.
  • The drug therapy could be used to halt metastasis, the leading cause of death from cancer.

It may be a family member, a friend, a coworker, or even yourself, but chances are breast cancer will invade your life at some point. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 242,476 new cases of female breast cancer were reported in 2015 alone. The disease took the lives of 41,523 women that same year. This makes breast cancer the most commonly diagnosed cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer deaths among American women.

Worldwide, cancers represent the second leading cause of death, surpassed only by heart disease. Yet despite these disheartening numbers, we are making progress in developing effective treatments against this deadly affliction.

Scientists may have given us another tool to further this progress. They've developed a new drug therapy that prevents malignant cancer growth. How? By turning cancer cells into fat.

The good kind of fat

Low magnification micrograph of a metastatic tumor [left side] in the ovary. This tumor metastasized from a tumor in the woman's breast. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Metastasis is the leading cause of death from cancer, occurring when cancer cells separate from the original tumor to proliferate elsewhere. These new cancer cells travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Since these bodily systems are thoroughly connected, cancer can spread to a variety of locations. Breast cancer, for example, "tends to spread to the bones, liver, lungs, chest wall, and brain."

Cancer cell plasticity — an ability that allows cancer cells to shift physiological characteristics dramatically — fosters metastasis and is responsible for cancer's resistance to treatments. To combat its resistance, researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland decided to turn cancer's cellular plasticity against itself. They used Rosiglitazone, an anti-diabetic drug, along with MEK inhibitors in mice implanted with breast cancer cells. Their aim was to alter the cancer cells.

The drug combination hijacked the breast cancer cells during epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), a process by which the cells undergo biochemical changes. EMT plays a role in many bodily functions, such as tissue repair. In unaltered cancer cells, EMT allows them to migrate away from the original tumor while maintaining their oncogenic properties.

But in cancer cells assaulted by the new drug therapy, EMT changes them into adipocytes, or fat cells. Like normal fat cells, these former breast cancer cells were both functional and post-mitotic, meaning they could no longer divide and proliferate.

While the therapy did not alter the original tumor, it did prevent new cancer cells from dividing and spreading elsewhere in the body. This repressed metastasis in the researcher's preclinical trials.

The researchers published their findings on January 14 in the journal Cancer Cell.

"In future, this innovative therapeutic approach could be used in combination with conventional chemotherapy to suppress both primary tumor growth and the formation of deadly metastases," senior study author Gerhard Christofori told Medical News Today.

Since the research used FDA-approved drugs to study the treatment's effects, the study notes, "a clinical translation may be possible."

Will we win the battle against cancer?

Members of Lebanon's Ladies of Harley hold placards as take part in an event organised by Pink Steps Lebanon to raise awareness about breast cancer on October 28, 2018. Photo credit: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP / Getty Images

This article opened with some fearful figures about cancer and its effect on people worldwide. But there's reason to hope.

While the total number of new cancer cases and deaths continues to increase, the rates of cancer diagnoses and deaths decline each year — as absolute figures don't account for rises in life expectancy, population growth, or aging populations. We've made great strides in understanding the disease and its various genetic and environmental origins. And events like Breast Cancer Awareness Month continue to educate the populace about the preventative measures available to them.

Thanks to scientists like those at the University of Basel in Switzerland, we may have more reasons to be hopeful very soon.

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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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