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Repairing tumour vessels can improve cancer therapy outcome

Badly formed vessels in tumours facilitate cancer metastases. Because cancer cells are hungry and aggressive, they can break through the fragile vessel wall and escape to other organs. Researchers from the Oncology Department, led by professor Peter Carmeliet, have now found a way to make these vessels healthy and strong again. This makes it less easy for cancer cells to escape allowing chemotherapy to get to the tumour better.

Badly formed vessels in tumours facilitate cancer metastases. Because cancer cells are hungry and aggressive, they can break through the fragile vessel wall and escape to other organs. Researchers from the Oncology Department, led by professor Peter Carmeliet, have now found a way to make these vessels healthy and strong again. This makes it less easy for cancer cells to escape allowing chemotherapy to get to the tumour better.

The problem of tumour vessels has been known for a while: they spread uncontrollably and at great speed. For this they need large amounts of sugar, and because of this excessive activity their metabolism overheats. This leads to fragile and deficiently constructed blood vessels, because the blood vessel cells do no longer work in a coordinated way. Cancer cells often use these as a ‘gateway’ to other organs. Moreover, the blood vessels can’t transport a sufficient amount of oxygen, stimulating tumour metastasis. Malformed blood vessels make it also more difficult for medication to get to the cancer cells.

Blocking of sugar intake

Classic cancer therapies prevent the production of new tumour vessels and eliminate the existing ones. The research team, led by professor Peter Carmeliet from the Oncology Department, has been concentrating on normalising the development of blood vessels. “Eliminating the growing blood vessels is not always effective. Some patients are resistant for these types of therapy”, says professor Carmeliet. “We were pleasantly surprised to see that medication which blocks the sugar metabolism of the vessels does work.”   

Better outcome chemotherapy

Via a specific molecule, researchers managed to cool down the overheated ‘sugar motors’. This made the deformed blood vessels healthy again. This ‘normalisation therapy’ for blood vessels not only reduces the chance for metastases, healthy tumour vessels also make it easier for chemotherapy to get to the tumour. “In addition we hope to improve the supply of immune cells with our method,” says professor Carmeliet. “This is very important with a view to cancer therapies that stimulate the immune system. The next phase will be to test the actual consequences of our normalization therapy on immunotherapy. This is a new step towards more targeted therapies in the fight against cancer.”

The results of this trial by professor Carmeliet have been published in scientific journal Cancer Cell.

On the image on the left you can see a tumour vessel. It shows irregularities such as openings from where cancer cells can escape to other organs. On the image on the right a tumour vessel in which the sugar metabolism has been blocked. This vessel looks normal again, with nicely connecting blood vessel cells. This makes it harder for cancer cells to spread, making cancer treatment more efficient.