A new view of cancer

The role of inflammation

Editor’s Note:  This story, first published in 2004, has been updated.

Bill Snyder
Published: December, 2004

Using a multi-photon microscopy technique they developed, John Condeelis, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine showed that tumor cells (green) move on fibers in the extracellular matrix (purple), some of which converge on a blood vessel (arrow). The in-vivo imaging technique has enabled the study of invasive tumor cells in real time.
From Nature Reviews Cancer (2003) Courtesy John Condeelis, Ph.D., and Nature
When John Condeelis, Ph.D., first watched tumor cells in living tissue under the microscope, he was amazed by what he saw. The cells were speeding along like little cars on fibrous “superhighways.” Their destination: a newly formed blood vessel surrounded by macrophages.

Macrophages are a type of white blood cell that normally are involved in inflammation and fighting infection. In this case, they appeared to be attracting the tumor cells to the vessel. “It’s almost as if the macrophages are sending a ‘come hither’ signal,” says his colleague Jeffrey W. Pollard, Ph.D., deputy director of the Albert Einstein Comprehensive Cancer Center in New York.

The pictures, achieved through the convergence of multi-photon laser microscopy and the generation of transgenic mice with fluorescent tumors, are providing some of the first visual, real-time evidence linking cancer to inflammation in living animals, says Condeelis, a biophysicist who directs Einstein’s Analytical Imaging Facility.

Many questions remain, but new technologies and a flood of research studies are redefining the old, relatively static model of cancer. Tumors are astonishingly dynamic and versatile. They depend—in absolutely crucial ways—on interactions with surrounding normal tissue. This new view of cancer is shattering old assumptions, while at the same time raising hopes for earlier diagnosis, better treatment and, perhaps most provocatively, prevention.

“Prevention is going to become the dominant approach to cancer within the next 20 to 30 years… just as it has for cardiovascular disease,” predicts Ernest Hawk, M.D., MPH, vice president for cancer prevention and population sciences at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “That will come about through an improved understanding of the various pathways… that influence inflammation… And that’s where it really starts to get exciting.”

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