Scientists zero in on how lung cancer spreads

CANCER RESEARCH UK scientists have taken microscopic images revealing that the protein ties tethering cells together are severed in lung cancer cells - meaning they can break loose and spread, according to research published in Cell Reports* today (Wednesday).

The researchers at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute discovered that the ties which lash cells together - controlled by a protein called TIAM1 - are chopped up when cell maintenance work goes wrong.

Healthy cells routinely scrap old cell parts so they can be broken down and used again. But this process spirals out of control in lung cancer cells, which scrap too many TIAM1 ties.

Targeting this recycling process could stop lung cancer from spreading by keeping the cells stuck firmly together.

Lead researcher, Dr Angeliki Malliri, at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute at the University of Manchester, said: “This important research shows for the first time how lung cancer cells sever ties with their neighbours and start to spread around the body, by hijacking the cells’ recycling process and sending it into overdrive. Targeting this flaw could help stop lung cancer from spreading.”

There are almost 43,500 new cases of lung cancer in the UK each year. It is the most common cause of cancer deaths and kills more than 35,000 people in the UK each year.

How Does Lung Cancer Spread?

Lung cancers can spread when cells break off from the tumor, and travel through the bloodstream or the lymphatics (vessels in the body through which lymph and white blood cells travel) to distant regions of the body and grow. This process is called metastasis.

It is important to distinguish between primary (where a cancer starts) and secondary cancers when talking about the spread or metastasis of cancer. A primary lung cancer that spreads to bone is referred to as “lung cancer metastatic to bone,” not “bone cancer.” Similarly, a lung cancer that spreads to the brain is termed “lung cancer metastatic to the brain” rather than “brain cancer.”

Scientists zero in on how lung cancer spreads Nell Barrie, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said: “Lung cancer causes more than one in five of all cancer deaths in the UK and it’s vital that we find effective new treatments to fight the disease and save more lives.

“Early-stage research like this is essential to find treatments which could one day block cancer spread - which would be a game changer. It’s also crucial that we find ways to diagnose the disease earlier, when treatment is more likely to be successful and the cancer is less likely to have spread.”

Where lung cancer is most likely to spread to

Not all lung cancers will spread. But if the cancer does spread there are certain parts of the body that it is more likely to go to. The most common areas for lung cancer to spread to are

  The lymph nodes within the chest, or in the tummy (abdomen), neck, or armpit
  The liver
  The bones
  The brain
  The adrenal glands

More rarely, it can spread to other parts of the body.

We have included the most likely symptoms of cancer spread below. People often ask us about this. But it is important to remember that these symptoms can also sometimes be caused by other things. A symptom is most likely to be caused by cancer if it lasts for a couple of weeks. Cancer symptoms don’t usually come and go. Let your doctor know if you have any symptoms that last for more than a few days or are getting worse.

The University of Manchester, including the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, joined forces with Cancer Research UK and The Christie NHS Foundation Trust to form the Manchester Cancer Research Centre, allowing doctors and scientists to work closely together to turn scientific advances into patient benefits sooner.


For media enquiries contact Emily Head in the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 6189 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.

Where Does Lung Cancer Spread?

Lung cancer can spread to nearly any region of the body, but the most common areas are the lymph nodes, liver, bones, brain, and adrenal glands.

Spread to Lymph Nodes
Most lung cancers first spread to lymph nodes in the chest near the tumor. As cancer progresses, cancer cells can travel to areas in the chest further from the initial tumor, and then on to other regions of the body. Unlike metastases to other regions of the body, spread of lung cancer to the lymph nodes doesn’t mean that it is metastatic ( stage 4 non-small cell or extensive stage small cell lung cancer).  All stages other than stage 1 non-small cell lung cancer can include cancers that have spread to lymph nodes .

Most of the time, spread of lung cancer to the lymph nodes doesn’t cause any symptoms. When these cancers extend to lymph nodes beyond the lungs, you may notice a lump in your neck or your armpit, similar (but usually firmer) to the swollen glands you may have had in the past with a sore throat.

Treatment is usually chemotherapy, unless the lymph nodes that are involved are near the initial tumor and can be removed with surgery.

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