New Study: Does chemotherapy promote cancer metastasis?

cancer cells, cell division, cancer research

A little while ago my attention was drawn to an article published in July 2017 on a blog called The Mind Unleashed titled “Chemotherapy to Spread Cancer, Cause Lethal Tumours in Groundbreaking New Study”. The article reported on a paper published the same month in the journal of Science Translational Medicine. This article claimed that the researchers had “proven that chemotherapy causes cancer cells to spread throughout the body – to replicate themselves, making your cancer worse, not better”.

This is a frightening thought. Could it be possible that in treating cancer we are actually promoting its survival? As a cancer researcher I was very, very sceptical of this claim. Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that has been available for a long time. It was first studied in the early 20th century and first administered in 1942. On the day of writing there are over 2.9 million papers referencing the term chemotherapy in the title, key words or abstract available on PubMed (a database for published, peer-reviewed material). We have done an incredible amount of research into different types of chemotherapy treatments and those that work are the only ones approved for use in the clinic.

That’s not to say we know everything about chemotherapy, though. The human body is a complicated thing, as is cancer. We might well be missing something. The most important part of research is to continually progress, to follow the science where it leads us in the most unbiased way possible.

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The paper in question is one reporting a study undertaken by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the US. The authors were working on a particular chemotherapeutic agent called paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) in mouse models of breast cancer.

Paclitaxel is a drug derived, originally, from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. It was first discovered by a screen on plant derivatives undertaken by the National Cancer Institute in the early 1960’s. After decades of research into the chemical – first isolating the chemical structure and later the mechanism of action – paclitaxel was approved by the FDA in 1992. Today, we make it from a precursor taken from the needles of this plant. We are unable to produce it entirely synthetically.

Paclitaxel works – it prolongs progression free survival and shrinks tumours. The mechanism of action is well established; paclitaxel binds to a protein involved in cell division thus preventing tumour cell replication. Consequently those cancer cells die and tumour size is reduced.

cancer cells, cell division, cancer research

There are, of course, side effects to any drug and paclitaxel does have a number of them. In particular, paclitaxel is not soluble in water so for treatment it must be diluted in a derivative of castor oil. This is not particularly well tolerated by the human body and patients must be co-treated with corticoids and antihistamines to prevent dangerous hypersensitivity reactions so research is ongoing into better ways of administering paclitaxel.

One avenue of research has been into a particular quirk of paclitaxel treatment. It has been identified by clinical trial that when paclitaxel is used prior to primary treatment (such as surgery) in breast cancer (known as a neoadjuvent therapy) the survival rate of patients is not increased beyond that of surgery alone. This is despite a reduction in tumour size when using paclitaxel as a neoadjuvent. If tumour size is reduced you might expect survival to be enhanced – there was a discrepancy here not currently explained by the available science.

The authors of this paper had a theory. They knew that paclitaxel treatment is associated with an increase in a particular type of immune cell called macrophages moving into the tumour site. They also knew that macrophages might be involved in metastasis. Therefore, they posited that perhaps the reason paclitaxel didn’t prolong survival despite shrinking the tumour might be because the tumour was able to sustain itself by travelling elsewhere in the body.

They investigated this question in a number of laboratory mice which suffer from breast cancer and are used as models of the disease in humans. The researchers found that there was an increase in markers for metastasis in those breast cancer mice treated with paclitaxel and an increase in circulating cancer cells in the bloodstream. And then they took it another step forward. The authors noticed that the increase in metastasis markers included an increase in a protein called TIE2. They had reason to believe that this was an important part of the problem so they co-treated the mice with an inhibitor against TIE2. This they showed reduced the markers of metastasis and the circulating cancer cells in the blood.

mouse model, science, laboratory, cancer research

The important conclusion of this study was not that paclitaxel might promote metastasis in mice with breast cancer. It was that this particular type of chemotherapy might have another negative effect we didn’t know about. It is important to know about this because now we can monitor patients for changes in their metastasis markers when they are treated with this type of chemotherapy and we can switch them on to a different form of treatment if necessary – or we can co-treat them with TIE2 inhibitors. The most important thing in medicine is to have as much knowledge as we possibly can. We shouldn’t be fearful of negative effects of good treatments – unfortunately to kill cancer cells in the body will have some negative effects. But we need to be aware of them and we need to manage them carefully and make sure we put the needs of patients first. Research like this helps us make informed decisions on treatment options. Of course it requires further research first in more animal models and later in humans but it a stepping stone to giving us important information that may well help us to save more lives.

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What worries me more is that blogs like The Unleashed Mind misrepresent the data reported and promote distrust in reliable medical research and the scientific method in general. Anyone communicating the findings of academic research has a responsibility to represent it accurately especially when that communication might well influence a patient’s decision when it comes to their health. A cornerstone of medicine is to give patients the opportunity to informed consent – we should all endeavour to present the information as accurately as is possible.

photo credit: ZEISS Microscopy

Author: Dr Alice Howarth

I am a science loving PhD cancer researcher with a passion for science accessibility. I like cell biology, scientific skepticism and equality. For almost 5 years I have been an integral part of The Merseyside Skeptics society - a non-profit organisation which aims to promote scientific reasoning, nationally and internationally. I am co-host of the successful podcast, Skeptics with a K where I discuss topical science stories on a fortnightly basis. I am a science communicator to a wide variety of audiences from school age children to interested members of the public and academic researchers.