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In what could be a major step forward in our understanding of how cancer moves around the body, researchers have observed the spread of cancer cells from the initial tumour to the bloodstream.
The findings suggest that secondary growths called metastases 'punch' their way through the walls of small blood vessels by targeting a molecule known as Death Receptor 6 (no, really, that's what it's called). This then sets off a self-destruct process in the blood vessels, allowing the cancer to spread.
According to the team from Goethe University Frankfurt and the Max Planck Institute in Germany, disabling Death Receptor 6 (DR6) may effectively block the spread of cancerous cells - so long as there aren't alternative ways for the cancer to access the bloodstream.
Catching these secondary growths is incredibly important, because most cancer deaths are caused not by the original tumour, but by the cancer spreading.
To break through the walls of blood vessels, cancer cells target the body's endothelial cells, which line the interior surface of blood and lymphatic vessels. They do this via a process known as necroptosis - or 'programmed cell death' - which is prompted by cellular damage.
According to the researchers, this programmed death is triggered by the DR6 receptor molecule. Once the molecule is targeted, cancer cells can either travel through the gap in the vascular wall, or take advantage of weakening cells in the surrounding area.