Approaches for new treatments in the fight against cancer
Dr. Bernhard Polzer is fully concentrated as he looks through the microscope at the slide bearing bone marrow cells from a breast cancer patient. In between the bone marrow cells, he is searching for disseminated tumor cells that he previously labeled with a blue dye. When he finds a blue cell, he suctions it up with a glass capillary and places it on an empty slide.
It is single cells like these that can kill cancer patients: disseminated tumor cells that lie dormant for years in the bone marrow or other organs and one day form metastases that ultimately lead to death. Nine out of ten cancer deaths are not caused by the primary but by secondary tumors.
“We are developing special methods to genetically analyze single disseminated tumor cells and tackle them individually,” explains Bernhard Polzer, deputy director of the Division of Personalized Tumor Therapy at the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine ITEM in Regensburg. The 40-member research team aims to use genetic data to shed light on the not yet well-understood process of metastasis formation – and, in this way, to develop approaches for new forms of treatment.
Heading up this research division is Prof. Christoph Klein, who in 2014 received the German Cancer Award in recognition of his work. “In carcinogenesis, cells revert to programs that are important in embryonic development,” explains Klein. “When a degenerated mammary cell detaches and is transported through the blood to the bone marrow, it tries to form a new mammary gland there.” But instead of a mammary gland, only a tumor is formed that destroys the surrounding organ.