Childhood cancer discovery may stop tumour spread, UBC researchers say

Millions of dollars are spent on researching new forms of treatment -- but the three doctors working in a Halifax lab are trying to see whether a low-cost, low-risk medication already exists.

There’s promising new research out of the University of British Columbia that could prevent cancer cells from spreading beyond their primary tumour site.

Researchers at UBC and BC Cancer say a new discovery in the aggressive and often fatal childhood cancer known as Ewing sarcoma has the potential to prevent metastatic spread in a number of cancer types.

The research provides insight into what triggers the process that allows cancer cells to survive as they travel through the body.

One of the study’s lead authors Dr. Paul Sorensen is a scientist at BC Cancer and a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UBC.

"You might think that a tumour cell could readily survive in the bloodstream but it’s actually a very harsh environment," said Sorensen, in a news release.

"What we found was that Ewing sarcoma cells are able to develop an antioxidant response that shields them and allows them to survive as they circulate."

Sorensen compares the process to a person in the Arctic having to put on a thick coat before they go outside because if they don’t shield themselves from the elements, they may not survive.

The study, published in the Cancer Discovery journal, shows that Ewing sarcoma cells are able to develop a shield which protects them from the harsh environment found in the bloodstream.

By offering that layer of protection it is harder for the cells to spread, according to researchers.

"What’s exciting about this study is if we can target the cells in circulation then maybe we can prevent metastasis from occurring. So that’s the really big goal of this research," said Sorensen.

UBC postdoctoral fellow at BC Cancer Dr. Haifeng Zhang says the new research will allow them to develop treatments that target the cancerous cells without producing toxic side effects in non-cancerous cells.

"This study is the first to show that the surface protein, IL1RAP, is rarely expressed in normal tissue, but is upregulated in childhood sarcomas," said Zhang.

Researchers are also working on developing antibodies that can target IL1RAP.

"These powerful antibodies can bind to the outside of the cell and we show in our research that these reagents can actually kill Ewing sarcoma cells. So not only have we discovered an interesting pathway, but we are well on our way to developing a clinical-grade immunotherapeutic treatment for Ewing sarcoma," said Sorensen.

There are plans to begin clinical trials within the next year or two.

Further research is underway to determine whether the same shielding behaviour can be found in other cancer cell types, including acute myeloid leukemia, melanoma and in some types of lung and breast cancers.