Blocking body’s first immune response could reduce cancer spread

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Francis Crick Institute scientists, funded by Cancer Research UK, have discovered that blocking part of the immune system’s first response might help prevent cancer from spreading.

Researchers found that chemical messengers – made by immune cells called neutrophils – can help spreading cancer cells to grow in a new environment.

When the scientists looked at breast cancer in mice, they found that these messengers – known as leukotrienes – helped the disease to spread to the lungs.

The messengers helped make the lungs more welcoming to cancer by homing in on cancer cells with the highest potential to form a secondary tumour and helping them to multiply.

The research showed that using an inhibitor drug called Zileuton (usually used for the treatment of asthma) to block these messengers from being produced reduced cancer spread in mice.

Dr Ilaria Malanchi of the Crick (currently based at Lincoln’s Inn Fields) said: “Neutrophil immune cells swing into action as soon as the body is injured or infected to kick-start the healing process. But in cancer patients, some of this work can help the disease and sometimes give secondary tumours a better chance of taking hold.

“Our research confirms that neutrophils can boost cancer spread and sheds new light on how they do this, by uncovering the vital role played by neutrophils’ chemical messengers. Most importantly, our work suggests a way of targeting the messengers and stopping them from aiding cancer spread. Now further research is needed to see if this approach could help cancer patients.”

Nell Barrie, senior science communications manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “Cancer usually kills by spreading from where it first develops to other parts of the body. So stopping it in its tracks could have a real impact for patients. This early research adds to what we know about how the disease spreads and could lead to ways of making the body less receptive to cancer cells that are on the move. More research is needed before this can benefit patients, but this study provides another important piece of the cancer puzzle.”

The paper, Neutrophils support lung colonisation of metastasis-initiating breast cancer cells, epithelial reversion and metastatic colonization, is published in Nature.