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Are Some Tumors Just ‘Born to Be Bad’?

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Human Colon Cancer Cells

Caption: Human colon cancer cells.
Credit: National Cancer Institute, NIH

Thanks to improvements in screening technologies and public health outreach, more cancers are being detected early. While that’s life-saving news for many people, it does raise some important questions about the management of small, early-stage tumors. Do some tumors take a long time to smolder in their original location before they spread, or metastasize, while others track to new, distant, and dangerous sites early in their course? Or, as the authors of a new NIH-funded study put it, are certain tumors just “born to be bad”?

To get some answers, these researchers recently used genomic data from 19 human colorectal tumors (malignant and benign) to model tumor development over time [1]. Their computer simulations showed that malignant tumors displayed distinctive spatial patterns of genetic mutations associated with early cell mobility. Cell mobility is a prerequisite for malignancy, and it indicates an elevated risk of tumors invading the surrounding tissue and spreading to other parts of the body. What’s more, the team’s experimental work uncovered evidence of early abnormal cell movement in more than half of the invasive tumors.

Much more remains to be done to validate these findings and extend them to other types of cancer. But the study suggests that spatial mutation patterns may someday prove useful in helping decide whether to pursue aggressive treatment for early-stage cancer or opt for careful monitoring instead.


LabTV: Curious about Pancreatic Cancer

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Lindsey Briton

Growing up in Blacksburg, VA, Lindsey Brinton was constantly asking her parents how everything worked. She took this expansive natural curiosity with her to the University of Virginia, where she earned undergraduate degrees in French literature and biomedical engineering. Now a Ph.D. candidate at UVA in the lab of Kimberly Kelly—and the subject of our latest LabTV video—Brinton is posing interesting questions about pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat, in part, because it often spreads early and is diagnosed too late. Brinton’s research is focused on the cells that surround the tumor, the so-called stroma, and on the risk of metastasis. She wonders whether these cells display unique targets on their surface that, once discovered, can be exploited to kill the tumor cells. It’s certainly challenging research. Failures far outnumber successes. But as Brinton points out, endurance, perseverance, and keeping your eye on the big picture can lead to success.