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28 June 2012
An entirely new way to control the development of blood vessels has been discovered by scientists, which could lead to improved treatment of cancer, heart disease and eye disease, with fewer side effects. The results are published today in the journal Blood.
The team from the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) found that a molecule called endosialin plays a hitherto undiscovered role in “pruning back” growing blood vessels.
The molecule is only involved during certain stages of vessel formation, which scientists hope will give them a window for a two-pronged attack on the tumour. Interestingly, there are drugs already in development which could be used to inhibit endosialin to attack cancer in this new way.
Tumours need new blood vessels so they can tap into the supply of nutrients in the blood system, but blood vessels also provide a route for drugs to reach the cancers. Scientists hope to use these findings to manipulate blood vessel growth so they can keep the vessels open when patients are being treated with anti-cancer drugs but then prune away the vessels to starve the cancer.
The same approach could be used to combat other diseases that are highly reliant on a growing blood supply, including types of heart disease, eye disease and obesity-related conditions.
Study co-author Professor Clare Isacke, Director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre at the ICR, said:
"Scientists have long hoped to attack tumours by controlling their blood supply, but this has proved to be unexpectedly difficult. These exciting findings provide us with an entirely new way to approach this problem, which we hope to exploit for the benefit of cancer patients.
"What is even more promising is that this approach could be used to specifically target blood vessels in disease without harming the vessels in the healthy body, which should mean fewer side effects for patients."
The team studied the development of blood vessels in the retinas of mice, carefully analysing each stage of that process. Through this, they identified for the first time that a type of cell called a pericyte played a key role in 'pruning back' growing blood vessels and that endosialin on the pericytes was needed for this process. Crucially, endosialin was not present on blood vessels once they had finished growing.
They then looked at pericytes in tumours, and found the same process existed there. This means endosialin could be an excellent target for precise treatment, with the potential for few side-effects.
Study co-author, Dr Helen Yarwood, from the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre at the ICR, said:
"These results fundamentally change our understanding of how blood vessels develop. Cancer cells rely on blood vessels to grow, so by learning more about how this process works we can identify the best ways to manipulate this process to provide better healthcare for patients.
"Our hope is that we now have the opportunity to manipulate the blood supply to tumours to boost the effectiveness of current drugs, while also giving us the potential for new treatments."