NEW YORK — A substance that the body creates naturally and is also an ingredient in anti-wrinkle creams could hold the key to stopping the spread of cancer. Researchers from The Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai say cancerous tumors secrete a form of the protein collagen that keeps them quiet for years, even as they spread to other parts of the body. Their findings reveal that these tumor cells only turn malignant once their supplies of collagen run out.
Experiments involving mice and humans found increasing levels of type III collagen — the form of the protein cancer cells produce and cover themselves in — stops diseased cells from spreading. The collagen that surrounds the cells forces them to remain in a dormant state, preventing recurrence and metastasis — where they migrate to other organs.
“Our findings have potential clinical implications and may lead to a novel biomarker to predict tumor recurrences, as well as a therapeutic intervention to reduce local and distant relapses,” says senior author Professor Jose Bravo-Cordero in a media release.
Using state-of-the-art scanning techniques, the team tracked breast, head, and neck cancer cells implanted in mice. This enabled them to visualize the supporting “scaffold” as they became dormant and how this covering changed as the cells awoke.
Covering tumor cells in collagen could keep cancer asleep
In samples from cancer patients, researchers found type III collagen predicted tumor recurrence and metastasis. In the mice, infusions of collagen around cancer cells blocked their progression, forcing them back into dormancy.
“This intervention aimed at preventing the awakening of dormant cells has been suggested as a therapeutic strategy to prevent metastatic outgrowth,” Prof Bravo-Cordero says.
“As the biology of tumor dormancy gets uncovered and new specific drugs are developed, a combination of dormancy-inducing treatments with therapies that specifically target dormant cells will ultimately prevent local recurrence and metastasis and pave the way to cancer remission.”
How cancer cells remain inert for long periods before awakening to wreak havoc throughout the body has baffled experts for decades. The study, published in the journal Nature Cancer, solves a major mystery and opens the door to therapies using collagen as a cancer treatment.
From cosmetics to cancer research
Most people likely know collagen for its use in helping people look younger. However, the protein is also a natural building block for the skin, bones, and connective tissues throughout the body. It provides strength and elasticity, but women experience a dramatic drop in production after menopause.
In cosmetic products, collagen injections can improve the contours of the skin. Fillers that contain collagen remove lines and wrinkles from the face. It can also improve the appearance of scars.
Study authors note that collagen is present in the extracellular matrix, an intricate network that determines the physical properties of tissues — including tumors. Most cancer deaths are due to these harmful cells spreading throughout the body, which can still happen several years after surgical removal of the original tumor.
Previous research has shown collagen dressings heal chronic wounds that do not respond to other treatments. Encasing a tumor in collagen may have similarly dramatic success, Prof. Bravo-Cordero explains.
The study author adds that wound treatment with collagen scaffolds has displayed promising results and is a therapeutic alternative for people with complex skin wounds.
“Our studies demonstrate the potential therapeutic use of type III collagen to prevent the reawakening of cancer cells by inducing and maintaining cancer cell dormancy in the primary site,” researchers conclude in a statement to SWNS.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.