Local researcher’s personal mission to stop the spread of cancer

Researchers are trying to stop the spread of cancer in the body. Why cancer cells travel from one spot to another is a mystery. And treating metastatic disease is complex. But for one local researcher, it’s a personal mission to help those suffering.

Northwestern Medicine researcher Dr Sui Huang’s mother died from cancer when she was 12.

“I have this vengeance against it,” she said.  “If I do research maybe I find something.”

She did.

Under the microscope she can saw the changes – a metastatic cancer cell stopped in its tracks.  The cell’s structure and shape have changed and it can no longer make protein – an essential building block.

“For the cancer cell to keep growing and spreading they need a lot of protein made, so if you block the ability they won’t survive,” Dr. Huang said.

It’s just one way Metarrestin, a new compound Dr Huang and her colleagues developed, seems to inhibit cancer cells from spreading. But it likely targets multiple factors that fuel metastatic disease, making it even more powerful.

Still, how it works is a bit of a mystery.

“We don’t actually know the mechanism whether we are blocking the spread of those cells or are we blocking the cells that already spread and not able to grow,” Dr. Huang said.

So far, the compound has been tested in animal models where it inhibited metastasis in human breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers transferred to mice. Ultimately, the team would like to test it out in human clinical trials, particularly in pancreatic cancer patients.

The next step is to submit the compound to the FDA as a potential investigational drug so that human testing can get underway. Ultimately, the compound could be used in combination with standard care and post-surgery.