In a first, scientists turn cancer cells into fat in mice

Study, which ‘stopped’ cancer metastasis in mice, holds big implications for future research and treatments

Published: Friday 18 January 2019

Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland have successfully stopped cancer from spreading in mice, turning the cancer cell into fat.

When cancer cells break away from the main tumour to enter the bloodstream and form new tumours in other parts of the body, the process is called metastasis. During this, the cells temporarily enter an "immature" state, similar to stem cells. This change is known as an epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), when the cells are in a highly plastic or adaptable state.

EMT is essential for embryonic development, during which stem cells differentiate into various types of cells throughout the body, and for tissue regeneration during healing of a wound.

Taking advantage of the "plasticity" of some cancer cells during metastasis, the researchers were able to drive breast cancer cells in mice into becoming fat cells. The researchers transplanted human breast cancer cells into female mice. When these mice received doses of two FDA-approved drugs, their invasive cancer cells changed into fat cells.

The drugs also suppressed the growth of primary tumours in the mice and prevented the tumours from metastasising throughout the body. The researchers hope that the results can help deplete a tumour's ability to resist chemotherapy.

“The breast cancer cells that underwent an EMT not only differentiated into fat cells, but also completely stopped proliferating,” says first author Gerhard Christofori, professor of biochemistry at the University of Basel.

"As far as we can tell from long-term culture experiments, the cancer cells-turned-fat cells remain fat cells and do not revert back to breast cancer cells," he adds in a press note.

The study was published in the journal Cancer Cell.

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