Chemotherapy is known to come with a long list of side effects — from debilitating nausea and hair loss to extreme fatigue — and in many cases, it does not cure or even stop cancer from progressing. But what if chemotherapy does something no one has realized before during all the decades it has been in use? What if chemo actually encourages cancer to spread throughout the body, the process known as metastasis?
Researchers with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Comprehensive Cancer Center and UAB Department of Chemistry have just been awarded a $805,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program to see if the answer to those questions is “yes”. The study is investigating the very real possibility that dead cancer cells left over after chemotherapy spark cancer to spread to other parts of the body.
“What if by killing cancer cells with chemotherapy we inadvertently induce DNA structures that make surviving cancers cells more invasive? The idea is tough to stomach,” Katri Selander, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UAB Division of Hematology and Oncology and co-principal researcher on the grant, said in a statement to the media. “Fundamentally this question must be answered to advance the knowledge base and to know all the risks and benefits of cancer treatment. This research has the potential to reach across numerous scientific disciplines, and may one day improve the lives of patients worldwide.”
The UAB scientists are concentrating on inactivated or altered genetic material (DNA) left in the body after breast-cancer cells are exposed to chemotherapy. The research team stated that the resulting altered DNA could be the deadly factor that sparks the dreaded process of metastasis through a specific molecular pathway. Finding out whether chemotherapy could cause cancer spread is hugely important to the field of oncology because metastasis is the number one cause of cancer recurrence and treatment failure.
Dead cancer cells have been found to activate a pathway in the body mediated as a protein dubbed toll-like receptor 9, or TLR9, that is present in the immune system and in many kinds of cancer. “If TLR9 boosts metastasis, then researchers will work on finding targeted therapies that block or regulate this molecular pathway,” Dr. Selander stated.