'Abdominal imaging window' lets researchers crack cancer metastasis secrets

Image: Jacco van Rheenen

Scientists in the Netherlands identified a crucial process on the way to metastasis and then used drugs to delay cancer's spread. Their discovery method was a bit unconventional: a glass porthole planted into the abdomen of laboratory mice.

Dubbed an "abdominal imaging window," the invention came from the minds of researchers at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Details of the research are featured in the journal Science Translational Medicine, and summarized pretty well in the publication NewScientist.

Their creation consists of a titanium ring and a small panel of glass, that lead researcher Jacco van Rheenen told NewScientist "is just like a window in a ship or a plane" that enables a pretty solid front-row seat to the kidneys, small intestine, liver and other internal organs. And they used fluorescent dye to follow tumor cells as they moved through the abdomen. This research hits a narrow but important part of cancer research. As the article notes, tumor cell migration isn't well documented yet, in part because scientists can't follow cancer as it advances very easily. Imaging equipment helps, of course, but it gives an incomplete snapshot of cancer metastasis.

Here's what they learned: Cancer cells appear to move about randomly once they reach their initial target, but prior to their evolution into additional tumors. That movement knowledge is new, and allowed the researchers to test drugs to stop the cancer cells from moving around so much during that in-between stage. Interestingly, the drugs helped slow down tumor growth, according to the story, and also helped delay full cancer metastasis, the researchers said.

The accomplishment establishes a possible pattern of how cancer advances, and another theoretical target for drug developers. It's important to note, however, that cancer's advance in mice isn't the same in people. What's more, the researchers' success using drugs to slow cancer metastasis in mice won't necessarily be replicated in human trials. But a porthole in a mouse's abdomen is certainly a unique way to learn more about how cancer behaves, and could be looked at someday as an important first step toward more effectively combating the disease.

- read the full story
- here's the journal abstract