Chemotherapy is an extremely aggressive way to treat cancer because it’s indiscriminate about which cells it kills, cancerous or healthy. But it’s at least thought to be effective, which is why a new study suggesting chemotherapy can sometimes encourage cancer growth is shocking doctors.
The study, which is published in Nature Medicine, suggests that when chemotherapy damages healthy cells, they can sometimes go on to secrete a protein that sustains tumour growth and causes resistance to further treatment.
The experiments tested the effects of a chemotherapy treatment on prostate tumours. Samples collected from men showed that the chemotherapy treatment can cause healthy cells to create more of a protein called WNT16B, which boosts cancer cell survival. Peter Nelson, one of the researchers, explains to AFP:
“The increase in WNT16B was completely unexpected. WNT16B, when secreted, would interact with nearby tumour cells and cause them to grow, invade, and importantly, resist subsequent therapy.”
The finding could explain why sometimes tumors initially respond well to chemotherapy, before then going through a period of rapid regrowth. The team has already performed some initial confirmatory tests with breast and ovarian cancer tumours, and observed similar effects.
All this said, chemotherapy has, of course, saved countless lives — so this new finding isn’t going to stamp out its use. Rather, it will help inspire new ways to improve chemotherapy treatment to help make it even more effective. The researchers already postulate that WNT16B suppressants could be administered alongside chemo drugs in order to quell the unwanted response — and that looks set to be their next avenue of research
So, while the finding may sound a little alarming, it is in fact a shot in the arm for cancer treatments. [Nature Medicine]
Image: Andres Rueda/Flickr