Cancerous cells are those that have lost the ability to regulate their own growth. They no longer die over time, but instead multiply without control and can even spread to other tissues. In a new paper, published in Frontiers in Oncology, researchers claim to have found a particular type of cancer cell that is more dangerous than others, and it might be at the origin of how cancer spreads and grows.
They called them “energetic cancer cells” and they represent 0.2 percent of the full cancer cell population. The team considers them a distinct subcategory because of their energetic profile: they produce a lot more energy in their mitochondria, they have a higher rate of proliferation, and they are more likely to create a tumor. For these reasons, the team is pointing the finger at them as being the front runner cells that can start and spread tumors.
“If we ask where do these cells come from, the evidence indicates they emerge from senescent (dying) cells,” co-author Professor Federica Sotgia, from the University of Salford, said in a statement. “They displayed hallmarks of senescence but are no longer senescent, they have broken out of senescence.”
In the energetic cancer cell, a particular biomarker of senescence known as p21-WAF was around 17 times higher than in other cancer cells. These cancer cells have not only cheated the natural cycle of cell death, but they have also found a way to make it work to their advantage. The team describes the action of the energetic cancer cells as a prison break.
“In other words, this origin cell breaks out of line and runs amok, multiplying malignant cells and creating a tumour,” senior author Professor Michael Lisanti, also at the University of Salford, stated. “It feels like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, and it crucially gives us a new window on cancer and how we might stop it.”
The team believes that this finding could lead to different cancer treatments that directly target these cells and, by doing so, stop the formation of metastasis – the spread of cancer from the original site. This is the cause of death for many people with cancer.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally. The World Health Organization estimates that one in six deaths are due to cancer, with an estimated 9.6 million globally in 2018.