- By James Gallagher
- Health and Science Correspondent
An unprecedented analysis of cancer growth has revealed an “almost infinite” ability of tumors to grow and survive, scientists say.
The results of tracking lung cancers for nine years left the research team “surprised” and “awed” by the tremendous force they were facing.
They concluded that we need to focus more on prevention, with a “one-size-fits-all” cure unlikely anytime soon.
Cancer Research UK said early detection of cancer was vitally important.
The study – titled TracerX – provides the most in-depth analysis of how cancers grow and what causes them to spread.
Cancers change and evolve over time – they are not fixed or immutable. They can become more aggressive: better able to evade the immune system and able to spread throughout the body.
A tumor starts out as a single corrupted cell, but becomes a mixture of millions of cells that have all mutated in slightly different ways.
TracerX tracked this diversity and how it changed over time in lung cancer patients and said the findings would apply to different types of cancer.
“It’s never been done before on this scale,” said Professor Charles Swanton, of the Francis Crick Institute and University College London.
More than 400 people – treated at 13 hospitals in the UK – had biopsies from different parts of their lung cancer as the disease progressed.
“It surprised me how adaptable tumors can be,” Professor Swanton told me.
“I don’t want to sound too depressing about this, but I think – given the almost endless possibilities in which a tumor can grow, and the very large number of cells in a late-stage tumor, which could be several hundred billions of cells – so achieving cures in all patients with advanced disease is a formidable task.”
Professor Swanton said: “I don’t think we’ll be able to come up with any one-size-fits-all cures.
“If we want to have the biggest impact, we need to focus on prevention, early detection and early detection of relapse.”
Obesity, smoking, alcohol and poor diet all increase the risk of certain cancers. Fighting inflammation in the body is also considered a way to prevent cancer. Inflammation is the likely explanation for air pollution causing lung cancer and inflammatory bowel disease increasing the risk of colon cancer.
The evolutionary analysis has been published in seven separate studies in the journals Nature and Nature Medicine.
- The very aggressive cells of the initial tumor are the ones that eventually spread throughout the body
- Tumors with higher levels of genetic ‘chaos’ were more likely to relapse after surgery on other parts of the body
- Testing blood for fragments of tumor DNA meant signs of its return could be spotted up to 200 days before showing up on a CT scan
- The cellular machinery that reads the instructions in our DNA can be corrupted in cancer cells, making them more aggressive.
Researchers hope the results could, in the future, help them predict how a patient’s tumor will spread and tailor treatment.
Dr David Crosby, Head of Prevention and Early Detection at Cancer Research UK, said: “The exciting results from TracerX improve our understanding that cancer is a disease that changes as it progresses, which means that advanced-stage cancers can become very difficult to successfully treat.
“This underscores the critical importance of new research to help us detect cancers in the early stages of their development or, even better, to prevent them from occurring.”
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