How Many Cancer Cells It Takes To Trigger Metastasis?

  • Researchers determine the number of cancer cells that trigger the spread of tumor in different body parts. 
  • They found that many common metastatic tumors can be triggered by a range of hundreds to thousands of colonizing tumor cells. 

According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 1.6 million new cases of cancer get diagnosed every year, about half a million cancer patients die annually. Although most of the primary cancers can be treated if diagnosed early, metastatic tumor — spread of cancer cells to other body parts — is usually incurable and accounts for a large fraction of cancer-associated deaths.

In fact, all cancers have a tendency to metastasize, including lung, liver and bone cancer. To conquer them, it’s important to understand the biological and molecular basis of metastasis. However, the existing tools aren’t advanced or sensitive enough to provide an in-depth view of the metastatic process.

For the first time, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have built a technique to determine the approximate number of cancer cells that trigger the spread of tumor in different area(s) of the body. They have done this with the help of biomedical expertise and precise accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) technology.

Colonized Cancer Cells That Spread Tumor

For the past 3 years, Livermore researchers have been studying mouse models with cancer to figure out how a tumor spreads through the body. Finally, they have got some success using AMS technology, which is capable of identifying a single cancer cell among 1,000,000 other cells.

They quantified the number of colonized cancer cells that trigger the tumor to spread from the primary site of origin into different parts of the body.

  1. Nearly 25,000 cancer cells initiate metastatic lung tumor
  2. Between 400 and 2000 cells can start spreading tumor in liver
  3. Some 20 to 130 cells can start metastatic cancer in kidneys

This shows that many common metastatic tumors can be triggered by a range of hundreds to thousands of colonizing tumor cells. They also found a surprising element in the study: it takes only 3 cancer cells to trigger metastatic bone cancer.

Reference: Nature | doi:10.1038/s41598-018-33368-0 | LLNL

What’s Next?

The research has been made possible by biomedical AMS in which carbon-14 is used to precisely analyze complex biological processes like molecular damage, cancer, behavior of toxin and drug, and more.

Artistic view of cancer cells 

The team is now working on concepts that could provide insights into the early phase of primary metastatic cancers, and help cancer patient get personalized treatments.

In the future, clinicians could take a biopsy sample, tag it with carbon-14 and then use the mouse models to figure out the behavior of tumor cells, which would help them develop personalized treatments to effectively cure cancers.

Other tests could use carbon-14’s long half-life (nearly 5,730 years), which would enable scientists to understand why and how some tumor cells become much more active in short period of time, while other tumor cells remain inactive in tissue for years.

Read: Cancer Treatment Could Be Improved By Using Game Theory

For now, the team plans to determine the biological signature of metastasized tumor cells, which would eventually help them differentiate between primary tumor cells and those that have spread to the other parts of the body.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

View all articles
Leave a reply