Prof. Joan Massagué, scientific member of the BIST Board of Trustees and Director of the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York, and his team have discovered that the cells that initiate metastasis in the human body do so by hacking a natural repair mechanism and using it to spread cancer to other organs. The discovery changes the understanding of the disease and opens the way for improving treatments.
Joan Massagué, founder of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona, a BIST centre) and scientific member of the BIST Board of Trustees, has discovered that metastasis is not initiated by genetic mutations that enable primary tumor cells to migrate to other organs, as had been assumed until now. He found that metastasis is in fact produced by reprogramming the cells, which reactivate genes that are not mutated but were turned off. With this reprogramming, some tumor cells acquire the behavior of regenerative stem cells, which is what allows them to create metastasis. This discovery, published this week in Nature Cancer is the culmination of almost 20 years of research.
Massagué began working in the field of metastasis when most cancer researchers were focused on studying primary tumours. Wanting to understand the complexities of cancer in its entirety, and knowing that metastasis is the cause of about 90% of cancer-related deaths, Massagué made the switch to studying metastasis in 2002. He began by studying mouse models which allowed him to analyze independent variables involved in metastasis. His first paper, which was published in Cancer Cell in 2003, has been cited 1,700 times and established the theoretical and experimental foundations on which future scientists from all over the world have based their work. Massagué has truly become an international reference.
Since 2003, Massagué and other researchers who have followed his lead have described many genetic alterations present in metastasis. But because there are so many genes involved in metastasis, it can be difficult to know where to start. For this reason, Massagué focused on identifying the central process of the metastasis initiating cells, which he has now discovered and which opens up new avenues for treatment.
Congratulations to Prof. Massagué for this enormous achievement and contribution.
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