Scientists in Newcastle have identified a protein that allows endometrial cancer cells to metastasise from the uterus to adjoining organs with potentially fatal consequences.
In preclinical models they have also repurposed an existing drug to stop the signalling, which means the cancer can potentially be confined and surgically removed.
Dr Pradeep Tanwar, an ARC Future Fellow from the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute, believes the finding is a significant breakthrough for the most common type of gynaecological cancer.
“If the tumour is detected early enough a hysterectomy can be performed for a complete cure, but it becomes much more serious when metastasis occurs,” Dr Tanwar said.
“The uterus sits in the peritoneal cavity along with the intestine, liver and stomach and there is a physical spread of cancer to adjoining areas, almost like a fire. It doesn’t need to get into the blood stream.”
Using laboratory models and tumour samples from the Hunter Cancer Biobank, the research team rigorously screened for genetic differences between the invading cancer cells and those that don’t metastasise from the primary tumour site. They finally pinpointed the protein signalling pathway known as a TGF beta before linking it with an existing therapy.
“The drug we’re using was developed for arthritis and fibrosis but we have repurposed it for cancer because there are some pathological similarities,” Dr Tanwar adds.
“In our models we applied the drug after the primary cancer had developed in the uterus lining. We found it doesn’t have much effect on the primary growth but it stopped the metastasis which was our main goal.
“This may eventually allow surgeons to remove the uterus at a later stage if an early diagnosis isn’t made.”
Dr Tanwar conducted his initial research at Harvard University in Boston. Four years into the project, he is collaborating with a team from the UON Gynaecology Oncology Group and clinicians from John Hunter Hospital and Calvary Mater Newcastle. Results were published in the international journal Oncotarget.
The group is now aiming to determine which patients would be most suitable for the treatment. Among the causes of endometrial cancer are obesity and post-menopausal ageing, so it is likely that incidence rates will increase.
* Dr Pradeep Tanwar is an ARC Future Fellow, Cancer Institute NSW Career Development Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle, researching with the HMRI Cancer Program