Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Since 2002, the last time that MIT cancer researchers organized a symposium to talk about metastasis, scientists have made great advances in understanding how cancer cells break free from their original tumors and spread throughout the body.
Researchers from around the world discussed some of the latest developments at the June 19 annual symposium of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, held in Kresge Auditorium.
"We returned to this topic because of the great progress that has been made in this important problem over the past several years," said Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute. "Through development of new technologies, models and insights, we are indeed beginning to understand the metastatic process in some detail, and that's good news."
However, there remain many unanswered questions about metastasis, which causes about 90 percent of all cancer deaths.
"The challenge is to understand it and hopefully be able to treat it," said Richard Hynes, Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at the David H. Koch Institute, who introduced the first panel of the symposium.
Metastasis requires several steps: cancer cells must become motile so they can detach from the original tumor, migrate to blood vessels and travel through the bloodstream, attach to new sites and form new cancerous growths. In recent years, scientists have gained insight into each of those steps.
In the first session of Friday's symposium, Peter Friedl of Radboud University in the Netherlands and Erik Sahai of the London Research Institute described their work on motility of tumor cells and how such cells become invasive. Scientists are gaining a more detailed understanding of the complex variety of conditions - such as growth factors present in their environment and the proteins tumor cells produce - that influence motility.
MIT biology professor and Koch Institute member Frank Gertler described his research on the Mena protein, the invasive form of which helps tumor cells migrate from their original site. Gertler's work, published last December, may lead to a diagnostic test that can predict which tumors are most likely to metastasize.
Another mystery surrounding metastasis is why only a small percentage of cells that break free from tumors end up forming a new tumor elsewhere in the body.
"You can have many circulating cells that give rise to very few metastases," said Ann Chambers of the Regional Cancer Center Program in London, who is studying why many of those cells remain dormant for long periods of time and later re-awaken to form new tumors.
Other speakers were Sean Morrison of the University of Michigan, Kornelia Polyak of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Xiao-Jing Wang of the University of Colorado, Klaus Pantel of the University Medical Center, Hamburg, and Joan MassaguÃ© of Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
Jacks also announced that construction on the Koch Institute's new home on the corner of Main and Ames streets, which began in March 2008, is on schedule for completion in December 2010.
"We can really see the building coming into view before our eyes," he said.