Ovarian cancer cells adjust to their environment to boost tumour growth

ovarian cancer cells
©Ivan Shidlovski

A new study revealing how ovarian cancer cells adapt to their environment to aid tumour growth brings researchers closer to developing targeted treatments

In the study, published in Frontiers in Oncology, researchers outline how structures inside the cells alter as the disease progresses from benign to malignant. Understanding how these cellular adaptations are regulated could help scientist develop new targeted treatment options against the fifth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women.

Ovarian cancer can often originate from cancerous cells in the fallopian tubes and spread onwards throughout the peritoneal cavity via fluid in the abdomen. At this stage, a patient’s survival rates are only 30%, even if the tumour is removed.

If it is caught in the initial stages the chances of survival are increased to over 90%, however, this form of cancer is hard to detect because there aren’t many reliable early biomarkers or symptoms.

The mitochondria

Eva Schmelz, a Professor and Scientific Director at Virginia Tech University, USA, who led this research, said: “Our study compared the structures inside cells representing different stages of ovarian cancer, including after aggregation, which enhances their survival. We found that one of these structures, the mitochondria, known as the ‘battery pack’ of the cell, changed shape and function to adapt to the hostile conditions in the peritoneal cavity, allowing aggressive cancerous cells to grow and take hold.

“If we understand how ovarian cancer cells survive in the fluid of the abdomen as they spread around the peritoneal cavity, we may be able to develop specific therapeutics and interventions to suppress cancerous outgrowths of cells from the original tumour.

“Our previous work has shown the metabolism of cells changed as ovarian cancer progressed. We wanted to build on this by looking inside the cells to see if any structural differences could be seen. By examining cells developed from the ovaries of mice, any changes could be attributed to the progression of the disease rather than any differences between individuals.”

The researchers used a variety of microscopy techniques to capture 2D images and 3D models of the mitochondria, to identify and measure their structure at different stages of the cancer.

“As the ovarian cancer progressed, the mitochondria changed from a filamentous network to that of a highly fragmented form,” reports Schmelz. “This fragmentation and known changes in the way mitochondria function in this state, are how the cells adapt to an environment that is low in nutrients and oxygen. It also allows the cells to escape treatments commonly used in ovarian cancer patients, so they can continue to proliferate.”

“Future studies will identify how the changes we have identified inside the cells are regulated by isolating specific cell signaling pathways to create targets for therapies that limit the viability and spread of ovarian cancer cells”, Schmelz concluded.


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