The deadliest aspect of cancer is its ability to metastasize — migrate from a primary tumor to multiple distant sites. This is often the final, lethal step in the progression of solid tumors. To metastasize, a tumor cell has to learn to survive independently, enter the blood stream, travel to and recognize a potential new home, leave the blood stream, establish itself in a new setting, invade nearby tissues, and attract its own blood supply to allow growth. Although a complicated, multistep physiological process with its own dynamics, metastasis has remained largely unexplored and thus poorly understood. Importantly, each step in this complicated process provides a therapeutic target.
Historically, relatively little attention has been paid to how and why cancer spreads. The Virginia & D.K. Ludwig Fund for Cancer Research gave The University of Chicago a grant of nearly $20 million to launch a comprehensive center for metastasis research.
Researchers at UChicago's Ludwig Center for Metastasis Research are finding ways to improve cancer therapy by understanding how cancer spreads, why it is resistant to therapy, and how metastasis can be targeted. With knowledge about these aspects of cancer, therapy can be individually tailored to patients in order to avoid the toxicity of overly aggressive treatment.
Researchers at the Ludwig Center hypothesized that an intermediary step, termed oligometastasis, exists between early stage cancer and cancer that has spread and become resistant to therapy. In a recent study, UCCCC researchers, including Joseph Salama, MD, Walter Stadler, MD, Everett Vokes, MD, and Ralph Weichselbaum, MD, showed that targeted radiation therapy could control oligometastasis in certain patients whose tumors had spread to as many as five distant sites. While standard treatment was ineffective, targeted radiation therapy provided lasting tumor control for many patients. The study is important because it demonstrates that patients with early metastatic cancer can be identified and safely treated, giving them a greater chance to beat the disease.
Thanks to this study, patients with a similar diagnosis will no longer have to be told that they have run out of options. Our research has given them hope and a realistic chance to beat cancer.