Lung cancer has a very poor survival rate, which is often due to the fact that the disease isn’t diagnosed until it has spread around the body, making treatment difficult. Now a team of researchers in the US have found that faults in a gene called LKB1 may be responsible for causing lung cancer cells to spread aggressively.
In experiments published in the journal Nature this week, the scientists took some mice carrying faults in genes that are known to increase the development of cancers, and bred them with mice carrying faults in LKB1. These double-fault mice developed highly aggressive lung tumours that quickly spread.
In healthy cells, LKB1 acts to protect us from cancer – it’s a type of gene known as a tumour suppressor. In order for cancer to develop, cells need to pick up faults in several different genes – a bit like mixing a cocktail of genetic mistakes. But it seems that faults in LKB1 act like the “vodka in the cocktail”, causing the cancer to spread.
Although it’s still very early days, the researchers hope that their research may help to shed light on what makes some lung cancers grow so aggressively. The new mice they have created are a good model for human lung cancer, and will help to accelerate research into urgently-needed cures.
It is also possible that LKB1 may become a future drug target, if scientists can find some way to reactivate its function. And it could also be used as a prognostic tool – to predict how a person’s cancer might progress, or how best to treat them. The team is now carrying out experiments to test this idea in cancer patients. But work like this needs to go hand in hand with better ways to pick up lung cancer at an earlier stage.
Of course, we don’t need to tell you that the best way to avoid lung cancer is to quit smoking – a habit that causes more that 9 out of ten cases of lung cancer in the UK.