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Potential new treatment for metastatic colon cancer

How tumor cells create their own pathways

The picture shows a tumor cell that migrates through the wall of a blood vessel into the neighboring tissue.
A tumor cell at the inner wall of a blood vessel. A magnified image of the marked area is shown on the right. - Image: Marco Prinz/Universität Freiburg

For 90 percent of all cancer patients, the original tumor is no longer the cause of death. Nowadays, metastases are the major cause for concern. Metastasis occurs when tumor cells “migrate” to other organs through the bloodstream. Scientists have now discovered the trick tumor cells use to invade tissue from the blood vessels: They produce signaling proteins to make the arterial walls permeable – thus clearing their pathway to a different organ. The latest findings are published in the current issue of the journal Cancer Cell.

How does a tumor cell set up a signaling pathway in order to metastasize? Scientists at Technische Universität München’s (TUM) Klinikum rechts der Isar and Helmholtz Zentrum München have made a significant discovery in this area by studying colon cancer. They have learned that the tumor cells release certain proteins known as chemokines. In the case of metastatic colon cancer cells, the chemokine concerned is CCL2. The CCL2 chemokine docks on to the cells of the inner blood vessel walls (endothelial cells) and activates the corresponding receptor (CCR2 receptor). This connection makes the endothelial cells permeable – creating a clear path for the tumor cells.

Professor Mathias Heikenwälder of TUM’s Institute of Virology explains that the tumor cells use a clever trick to migrate: “The tumor cells outwit the endothelial cells by emitting a signal used by healthy cells.” To date, research has mainly focused on macrophage cells attracted by the chemokines of the tumors. “By understanding the role of chemokine receptors in relation to endothelial cells we have potentially uncovered a brand new approach to cancer treatment,” says Heikenwälder.