Cancer cell migration to other organs is a crucial factor leading to cancer metastasis and poor prognosis. It is a hot issue to be resolved.

Dr. Ying-Chih Chang of Genomics Research Center teamed up with Dr. Muh-Hwa Yang, a professor of Yang-Ming University and an oncologist/ Director of Taipei Veteran General Hospital to explore the metastatic mechanisms of head and neck cancers. More than intriguing, they observed that cancer cells act very much like humans when they set out for an adventurous journey from home. They travel by groups. It turned out that solo travelers tend to fail on their way, or, they have less chances to make a new distant colony – a metastatic tumor.

The study has pinpointed a protein named claudin-11 appears to be the one that calls up the cancer cells to form clusters. The study has been published in the January 21st Nature Cell Biology.

CMx is a microfluidic platform to catch circulating cancer cells, that is to say, by examining patient’s blood, this technique is able to tell how many cancer cells are traveling and whether they travel in group. This technique was invented by Dr. Chang.

As a research physician experienced in head and neck cancers, Dr. Yang had been puzzled by the protruded cancer clumps around the edges of tumor occasionally found in patients’ biopsy. Because being epidermoid carcinoma, these cancer cells should have a much smooth form.
The research team then further investigated a transcriptor named snail which was found to trigger the formation of a protein, claudin-11. As a result, claudin-11 has the charisma to gather many cancer cells to form these uneven clumps Dr. Yang initially observed.
However, it was not clear whether these clumps would further advance to enter the blood stream, and, if they do, whether they would have any travel advantages compared to single cells.

The team then spent more than four years to finally identify this pathway. They confirmed the causation of claudin-11 and the circulating cancer cell cluster formation using the animal model, they then further established the clinical relevance by a mere 2 cc of blood to tell how many cancer cells and how many cancer clusters exist. More importantly, they have proved that patients with more circulating clusters do have much poorer prognosis.

The team feels excited about the potential of their circulating cancer cluster catcher to become a diagnostic tool helping head and neck cancer patients in their follow up treatments.

The former researchers involved in CMx platform development at Chang’s lab have started up a new cancer diagnosis company Cellmax Life. CMx has the potential for early cancer detection as well as follow-ups for cancer patients. CMx is accredited clinically for the colon cancer and prostate cancer detection.

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The article titled “Snail-induced claudin-11 prompts collective migration for tumour progression” is available online at the Nature website: