Researchers have been able to coax human breast cancer cells to turn into fat cells in a new proof-of-concept study in mice.
To achieve this feat, the team exploited a weird pathway that metastasising cancer cells have; their results are just a first step, but it's a truly promising approach.
When you cut your finger, or when a foetus grows organs, the epithelium cells begin to look less like themselves, and more 'fluid' – changing into a type of stem cell called a mesenchyme and then reforming into whatever cells the body needs.
This process is called epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and it's been known for a while that cancer can use both this one and the opposite pathway called MET (mesenchymal‐ o‐epithelial transition), to spread throughout the body and metastasise.
The researchers took mice implanted with an aggressive form of human breast cancer, and treated them with both a diabetic drug called rosiglitazone and a cancer treatment called trametinib.
Thanks to these drugs, when cancer cells used one of the above-mentioned transition pathways, instead of spreading they changed from cancer into fat cells – a process called adipogenesis.
"The models used in this study have allowed the evaluation of disseminating cancer cell adipogenesis in the immediate tumour surroundings," the team wrote in their paper, published in January 2019.
"The results indicate that in a patient-relevant setting combined therapy with rosiglitazone and trametinib specifically targets cancer cells with increased plasticity and induces their adipogenesis."
Although not every cancer cell changed into a fat cell, the ones that underwent adipogenesis didn't change back.