Researchers at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) have shown for the first time that ion channels that are capable of detecting changes in the physical properties of the cellular environment play a key role in tumor invasion and metastasis.
The discovery, led by Miguel Angel Valverde from the Department of Experimental and Health Sciences of the UPF and involving IBEC’s Integrative Cell and Tissue Dynamics group, could open new avenues in the development of new drugs that reduce the risk of metastasis.
Metastasis in the brain is common in breast cancer and one of the most common causes of death. To reach the brain, breast cancer cells must migrate from the tumor where they originated. They have to modify their shape and be able to move forward through the small spaces available. They also have to release some proteins that, like a drill, break down the barriers that appear during their journey. And finally, in the case of breast cancer cells that metastasize in the brain, they need proteins – serpins – that overturn the natural defenses of the brain, allowing the growth of the tumor in its new location.
Now, researchers have identified that a low level of the ion channel Piezo2 – a type of protein that forms pores through which ions enter and exit cells – makes the secretion, invasion and proliferation of serpins difficult, while a high level favors them.
“Our initial goal was to find out what triggers the breast cancer cells in the brain to release the serpins, because these break down the brain’s defenses,” explains Carlos Pardo-Pastor, first author of the paper. “During a metastatic cell’s journey, it has to adapt to many changes in the physical and mechanical properties of its environment, so we hypothesized that ionic channels that detect mechanical and osmotic changes in cells could be relevant in metastasis.”
Breast cancer cells that specifically metastasize in the brain present higher levels of the Piezo2 channel – a selective port which allows calcium flow when the cell detects changes in the rigidity of the environment, or when it crosses excessively narrow spaces. This calcium signal, in turn, triggers a wide range of responses including the secretion of serpins and the generation of structures known as invadosomes, which are necessary to perforate the extracellular matrix and allow the cells through.
The discovery could turn these channels into the target of new drugs that decrease the risk of metastasis.
More information can be found on the IBEC website.