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Study Reveals Why Some Cancers Spread To The Spine

Cancers can vary considerably in the way they are diagnosed, treated and at what point their effects become noticeable to a person and they may need to contact an oncologist for private treatment. Some types of cancer can be easier to spot early than others. A lump on the breast or prostate, for example, can be felt, which leads to a screening and tests, and if diagnosed as cancer it can be treated with as little discomfort and distress as possible. By contrast, a cancer that either starts in or has spread to the spinal cord can be debilitating, as the tumour pushes on the vertebrae that make up the spine as well as the nerve roots, which can be intensely painful or even lead to disability. Researchers have asked for a long time why bone cancers are more likely to spread to the spine rather than other bones such as those on the arms and legs, and according to a study led by Weill Cornell Medicine research staff, there may be a reason for this biological tendency.

Stem Cells, Proteins And Cancer

Dr Matthew Greenblatt, senior author of the study, noted that the stem cells that make up the various bones in our body are quite different and allow both bone and cartilage to develop and grow in different ways. The team started by isolating skeletal stem cells from different bones in lab mice, then analysed the genetic activity to see if they could find if there were any distinct patterns or markers that were associated with vertebrae rather than other bones. During that experiment, they found a more accurate definition for skeletal stem cells and could exclude cells that had been included in the old definition but were not stem cells at all. Next, they found that different bones have different genetic activity, identifying the markers for vertebral stem cells and proving that they could be used to make bones in the spine. Finally, they sought to disprove a traditional theory surrounding why spinal tumours are more common, which suggested that the cause was blood flow, which would deliver cells, including cancerous ones, more easily to the spinal column near the centre of the circulatory system compared to longer bones on the limbs that are further away. They managed to not only prove that this was not the cause but also found what they believed to be the cause, a protein known as MFGE8. MFGE8 is secreted by all bone stem cells but is produced in much higher amounts by vertebral stem cells compared to long bone cells, which may signpost a solution to reducing the risk of spinal cancers and cancer cells spreading to the spine. If there is a way to block MFGE8 and there are no other complications or implications for doing so, there is therefore a way to potentially lower the risk of contracting a particularly painful type of cancer. The team is exploring how their findings relate not only to cancer treatment but spinal orthopaedics in general

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