It may be possible to contain the spread of breast cancer through the body by targeting a specific blood vessel molecule, research suggests.
The protein, endosialin, helped breast tumour cells to "escape" into the blood stream, according to a study, by researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research in London and the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.
The detection of endosialin might in future offer a biomarker test for high-risk breast cancer, according to the researchers. The molecule could be blocked with a drug to help prevent and contain the spread of breast cancer.
Endosialin is produced by pericytes, large spider-like cells that wrapped around blood vessels and supported their growth and function.
Research had shown that removing the protein from genetically engineered mice stopped breast cancer cells migrating into blood vessels.
A follow-up study involving 334 women with breast cancer showed that those with higher levels of endosialin were significantly more likely to experience metastasis, or cancer spread.
Professor Clare Isacke, from The Institute of Cancer Research in London, said, "Our study sheds valuable light on the role of pericytes - a type of cell that wraps around blood vessels - in helping breast cancer cells escape into the bloodstream and spread round the body."
"We found that a molecule called endosialin, which is produced on the surface of pericytes, plays a key role in aiding the getaway of cancer cells.
Cancers that were not detected and treated early typically metastasised and the secondary tumours, not the initial tumour, were usually the cause of death. Cancerous cells spread through the bloodstream and preventing cells from the initial tumor from entering the bloodstream might prove effective in stopping the spread of the disease.
However, until recently, not much was known about the mechanism through which cells moved from the tumour into the bloodstream. The research team from London and Heidelberg had made an important contribution to solving this problem.