How lung cancer cells disguise themselves to evade chemo

New research has revealed the chameleonic abilities of lung cancer cells: by adopting the traits of cells from other major organs, lung cancer cells may escape chemotherapy. The findings open up paths for more targeted therapies.

cancer cellsCancer cells (shown here with lymphocytes) may have the ability to change their appearance and behavior to escape treatment.

Lung cancer is now the leading cause of cancer-related death, both worldwide and in the United States.

The disease also has one of the lowest survival rates — partly because lung cancer tumors are either treatment-resistant from the start or they develop resistance to treatment over time.

New research suggests that one reason behind why cancer cells can escape chemotherapy is due to their ability to adopt characteristics of cells from neighboring organs.

What is more, the new study — which was led by Purushothama Rao Tata, an assistant professor of cell biology at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, NC, and published in the journal Developmental Cell — finds a genetic mutation and mechanism that drive this shape-shifting process.

How lung cancer cells disguise themselves

Prof. Tata and his team analyzed genetic data from a large genetic database, which amassed thousands of samples from 33 different types of cancer, and profiled their genomes.

The researchers focused on the so-called non-small cell lung cancer, which makes up 80–85 percent of all lung cancer cases.

On analyzing the genomes of lung cancer tumors, the scientists found that a large number of them lacked NKX2-1. This is a gene known for “telling” cells to develop specifically into a lung cell.

Instead, the team found that these cells had genetic traits normally linked with gastrointestinal organs — such as the pancreas, duodenum, and small intestine — and the esophagus and liver.

Based on these preliminary observations, the scientists hypothesized that knocking out the NKX2-1 gene would make lung cancer cells lose their identity and adopt that of neighboring organs.

So, the researchers tested this hypothesis in two different mouse models. In the first, they depleted the rodents’ lung tissue of the NKX2-1 gene. Doing so made the lung tissue change its appearance and, surprisingly, its behavior.

A microscopic analysis of the lung tissue revealed that it had started to resemble gastric tissue in its structure, as well as produce digestive enzymes.

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