Irish researcher discovers clue that could help stop cancer cells from spreading around the body

A Galway researcher has discovered a clue to the scientific mystery of how cancer cells force their way into blood vessels.

his finding could lead to new drugs that block cancers from spreading out from the primary tumour site.

Eoin McEvoy, Assistant Professor in Biomedical Engineering, based at the University of Galway, has reported in Nature Communications that weakening of blood cells, due to mechanical “pulling and pushing” forces, can open little gaps in the blood vessels. Cancer cells can exploit these gaps to enter the blood and spread around the body.

“There are leaky blood cells, which cancer cells can get in and out of very easily,” said Professor McEvoy. “If we could design mechanotherapeutics to seal up these blood vessels, that could prevent invasion by tumour cells.”

These gaps regularly occur, said Dr McEvoy, and help with transport of materials in and out of blood vessels which help bodily tissues grow and develop or help immune cells respond to injury or infection.

However, cancer exploits the gaps to get access to the bloodstream, which acts like a superhighway for cancer cells to travel all around the body.

Scientists know that certain types of primary cancers tend to spread to certain other places in the body to form metastatic tumours. For example, they know that cancers that arise first in the prostate or breast, tend to spread to the bone, but they don’t fully understand why this is the case.

“Our work demonstrated how a balance in pulling and pushing forces in blood vessel cells can improve the mechanical stability of cell-to-cell junctions and also how they might break down to form gaps,” said Dr McEvoy.

“A greater understanding of what leads to gaps forming could motivate new drugs, which could reduce the invasion of tumour cells into the blood.”

Dr McEvoy observed cells using muscle-like forces to pull against one another, and developed computational models to predict how cells might behave in response to these forces. The predictions that simulations made about how the cells would react were borne out by experiments in the lab.

“In future, we’d like to understand exactly how cancer burrows into blood vessels, and to see if we can control this using targeted drug therapies,” said Dr McEvoy.

“This could motivate a new cancer therapy, given alongside chemotherapy that could seal up local blood vessels, and reduce the risk of cancer spreading,” said Dr McEvoy.

In future this could help limit cancer to a single area, where it can be more easily controlled.

This could then mean that chemotherapy could be targeted at a local site, rather than the whole body, risking damage to health tissues.

“Our understanding of how mechanical forces control gaps in blood vessels is important for cancer, but also for heart disease and immune function,” said Dr McEvoy.