New study provides important insight into how tumours metastasise


Research has shown that the growth of cancerous tumours is affected by the transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) in the body’s cells; TGF-beta both suppresses and stimulates tumour development, but it has not been understood how this happens. A new study published in the journal Science Signaling today reveals important details behind this process.

‘Our hope is that these findings will make it possible to discover a way to selectively inhibit the TGF-beta signals that stimulate tumour development without knocking out the signals that inhibit tumour development, and that this can eventually be used in the fight against cancer,’ says Eleftheria Vasilaki, postdoctoral researcher at Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at Uppsala University and lead author of the study.

TGF-beta regulates cell growth and specialisation, in particular during foetal development. In the context of tumour development, TGF-beta has a complicated role. Initially, it inhibits tumour formation because it inhibits cell division and stimulates cell death. At a late stage of tumour development, however, TGF-beta stimulates proliferation and metastasis of tumour cells and thereby accelerates tumour formation.

TGF-beta’s signalling mechanisms and role in tumour development have been studied at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at Uppsala University for the past 30 years. Recent discoveries at the Institute, now published in the current study in Science Signaling, explain part of the mechanism by which TGF-beta switches from suppressing to enhancing tumour development.

Uppsala researchers, in collaboration with a Japanese research team, discovered that TGF-beta along with the oncoprotein Ras, which is often activated in tumours, affects members of the p53 family. The p53 protein plays a key role in regulating tumour development and is often altered – mutated – in tumours. TGF-beta and Ras suppress the effect of mutated p53, thereby enhancing the effect of another member of the p53 family, namely delta-Np63, which in turn stimulates tumour development and metastasis.