January 26, 2014

Using Rats, Cornell University Team Discovers Cancer-Stopping Strategy

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Prof. Michael King, biomedical engineering, and a team of Cornell students have discovered a method to stop cancer from metastasizing, or spreading throughout the body, by attaching proteins called TRAIL and E-selectin to white blood cells.

Though researchers have been successful in fighting cancer cells in mice, the eventual goal is to treat cancers in humans, according to Michael Mitchell, grad, who worked on the project and co-wrote the study.

This research is especially important because metastasis is the function of cancer that allows it to harm or kill people, Mitchell said.

“Basically what we did is we developed a way to utilize the body’s own white blood cells to prevent cancer from spreading,” Mitchell said. “This targets a wide variety of types of cancer, [like] colon cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer.”

According to King, the TRAIL protein was the key to carrying out this method.

“We use a protein called TRAIL and attach it to lysosomes, or nanoparticles,” King said. “These lysosomes attach to white blood cells, called ‘unnatural killer cells,’ which collide with cancer cells and cause them to die.”

Contact with the blood cells causes the cancer to undergo apoptosis, or programmed cell death, according to the study published by King and Mitchell in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So far, researchers have performed experiments with TRAIL in petri dishes and on mice. According to the study, the TRAIL method works much better in live animals than elsewhere because the flow of the bloodstream causes the cancer cells to come into contact with many more of these “killer cells.”

“Most times blood gets in the way [while targeting] cancer cells, but our approach works far better than others,” he said. “All the white blood cells are working for us.”

In order to see successful results in mice, the researchers injected lab mice with TRAIL proteins and introduced cancer cells intravenously, according to King. The success rate of these trials was almost 100 percent, according to a Cornell press release about the research.

“Two hours after injection, the cancer cells were completely eliminated,” he said. “The ones that you could find, the few, were clearly not healthy.”

Since this experiment was performed over a short period of time, a longer-term study must be done before the research can move to larger animals or humans.

In their current phase of research, King and Mitchell are now allowing cancer cells to develop more naturally in the mice, so that they can apply their work to more realistic situations.

Mitchell said that while he is optimistic about the results, it is difficult to determine whether researchers can apply these findings to humans at this stage of the study, especially because the next rou­­nd of experiments can take months to complete.

“It’s too early to tell whether this could be applied to humans,” said Mitchell. “But it’s an exciting first step because no one’s ever really developed something like this. Targeting the spreading of tumors is very hard, so we think we found a way to cut off these cells from ever going anywhere.”