Although the importance of blood vessels to cancer growth is well established, researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College recently found, that the cells that line the blood vessels of tumors are important in promoting the change of a slow-growing malignancy into aggressive, disease resistant strains.
Their finding, in the March 17 issue of Cancer Cell , challenges what was believed to be a fundamental dogma in cancer. It suggests that it is not simply the number of genetic mutations that occur in cancer cells that determines the aggressiveness of the disease. Rather, lethality occurs when the cancer hijacks the reparative function of blood vessels, a critical step that ensures tumor cells’ ability to spread and resist treatment.
The researchers also found the crucial nurturing molecules that cancer co-opts from tumor blood vessels to promote invasiveness and resistance to chemotherapy. They show in animal experiments that shutting down these previously unrecognized biological signals originating from tumor vessels makes cancer less aggressive and improves survival.
“The endothelial cells that line the vessels orchestrate a wide variety of biological processes — good and bad,” says the study’s senior investigator, Dr. Shahin Rafii, co-director of Weill Cornell’s Ansary Stem Cell Institute and Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative, and a professor of Genetic Medicine. Dr. Rafii also is the founder of Angiocrine Bioscience, a startup anchored at Weill Cornell that is investigating how endothelial cells might be used to heal damaged tissues and regenerate organs – as well as target tumors. “The understanding and control of blood vessel function and how this changes the malignant behaviors of cancer cells is a transformative concept and will pave the way for designing innovative treatments that disrupt signals from the local environment housing the tumor cells- a strategy that has been unappreciated.”