White blood cells, the body's defense against infection, could actually play a role in spreading cancer, according to a new study in animals.
Scientists from the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre found that an infection defense "web" called the Neutrophils Extracellular Traps, which works by trapping harmful pathogens in the body, also seems to trap and activate cancer cells circulating in the body. By doing so, it makes the spread of cancer -- or metastasis -- more likely.
In that same vein, researchers also found that using medication to disrupt this "web" seems to curb the spread and growth of cancer. The findings are published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
"Our first clue of this association was from our previous research, which showed that severe infection in cancer patients after surgery results in a higher chance that patients will have the cancer return in the form of cancer metastasis," study researcher Dr. Lorenzo Ferri, who is the director of the Division of Thoracic Surgery and Upper Gastrointestinal Cancer Program at the university, said in a statement. "This led us to investigate the cellular players in the infection, notably neutrophils, the first and most numerous of the white blood cells that are used by the immune system fight off infections."
Recent studies have also helped us better understand why cancer spreads. A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature Cell Biology showed that cancer can also spread in the body through a process called "chase and run." Using cells similar to cancer cells called neural crest cells and cells similar to healthy cells called placode cells, researchers found that neural crest cells "chase" placode cells when they're put next to each other.
In addition, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, published in the journal Cancer Research their identification of a protein that seems to play a role in the regulation of cancer cell spread to other parts of the body.