A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine has shown that up to half of patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma will experience tumor recurrence or new tumors, which often spread and are difficult to treat (J Exp Med. 2021;218:e20200944).
The team of researchers, led by the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, found a mechanism by which head and neck cancer cells subvert adjacent normal tissue, allowing small clusters of cancer cells to burrow beneath the healthy tissue in mice, chick embryos, and cultures of human cancer cells.
Researchers discovered that when the DMBT1 gene was suppressed in head and neck cancer cells, it promoted aggressive invasion and metastasis in laboratory studies and was associated with metastasis in patients. They also found that two proteins secreted by head and neck cancer cells suppress DMBT1 in nearby healthy tissue, subverting it to promote invasion of a small amount of cancer cells, which then burrow under healthy tissue with an increased risk for cancer recurrence and a shorter disease-free survival time.
“We are familiar with cancer cells enlisting the help of other cell types to grow and spread,” said corresponding author Nisha J. D’Silva, DDS, of the University of Michigan, in a press release. “Our research demonstrated that cancer cells also communicate with healthy cells of their own cell type to facilitate spread.”