Cellular Barcoding May Help Block Breast Cancer Metastasis

Despite technological advances in breast cancer detection and treatment, the disease remains a leading cause of cancer-related mortality. An early diagnosis raises the likelihood of successful treatment and long-term survival. However, the situation takes a complicated turn when cancer spreads beyond the breast, which oncologists refer to as metastasis.

photo of a scientist working

What Is Metastasis?

Metastasis occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells break away from the primary tumor, travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system, and form new tumors in other organs or areas of the body. Metastasis is a multi-step process involving local infiltration, intravasation, survival in the circulation, extravasation, and colonization. Each step presents challenges for detection and intervention, making metastatic breast cancer a dangerous foe in the fight against cancer.


What Is Metastatic Breast Cancer?

Metastatic breast cancer, also known as stage IV breast cancer, has a ten-year relative survival rate of 13 percent. That’s why doctors worldwide frequently remind women to perform monthly breast self-exams and undergo routine mammography. Some men are also at risk, with 1 in 830 males developing breast cancer in their lifetime.


What Makes It Difficult to Track and Block Metastasis?

Traditional methods of tracking metastasis, including imaging and biopsies, have limitations in sensitivity and specificity. In some cases, they discover metastasis only after the disease has progressed, which reduces the window for effective medical intervention. Moreover, blocking the cancer cells from spreading requires in-depth awareness of the molecular and genetic mechanisms driving metastasis.

Fortunately, researchers now have a better understanding of cancer biology, paving the way for developments in tracking and stopping breast cancer metastasis. In particular, a new technique known as cellular barcoding has emerged, offering hope for earlier detection and more effective treatment options. This innovation can prospectively improve patient outcomes and quality of life by transforming how oncologists address metastatic breast cancer.


What Is Cellular Barcoding in Oncology?

Cellular barcoding is a cell-tracking technique that monitors the behavior and lineage of relevant cells with unique genetic identifiers or barcodes. Dr. Shalin Naik and Professor Ton Schumacher from the Netherlands Cancer Institute developed it in 2013. They continue to investigate its applications in oncology today.

Based on current breakthroughs, Dr. Naik shared that cellular barcoding would allow researchers to focus on the few cells responsible for spreading cancer, eliminating the need to examine thousands or millions of cell variants. This technique promises to revolutionize personalized medicine by providing deeper insights into individual cell behavior and how they may respond to different treatment strategies.


How Does Cellular Barcoding Work?

Here’s a comprehensive explanation of how cellular barcoding works:

photo of a scientist looking through a microscope

1. Finding and Tagging the “Seeders” of Breast Cancer Metastasis

A malignant breast tumor is one of the most diagnosed cancers in women and among the most life-threatening in men. While mortality rates have dropped by 58 percent, it’s still responsible for over 300,590 lost lives in 2023. Most of these deaths occurred due to metastasis.

Breast cancer has multiple cell variants, each with distinct characteristics that may contribute to metastasis. This diversity also makes it difficult to pinpoint which cells are causing the disease to spread.

Identifying the specific “clones,” or subpopulations of cells from the original tumor, responsible for metastasis is crucial, which a 2019 study published in Nature Communications successfully performed. Using the cellular barcoding technique, Dr. Naik and his team uncovered and tagged the clones that could enter the bloodstream and “seed” tumor growth in other organs.


2. Tracking Growth and Movement

Professor Jane Visvader, one of the study’s researchers, mentioned that the technique allowed them to observe the clones’ behavior after chemotherapy. While chemotherapy decreased tumor size and individual clone sizes, it failed to eliminate all cancer cells entirely. All clones, including the seeders driving metastasis, grew back and caused recurrence.

In essence, cellular barcoding lets scientists follow the journey and fate of individual cells within a complex system, providing valuable insights into cell behavior and disease progression.


Can Cellular Barcoding Block the Spread of Breast Cancer?


Cellular barcoding could play a role in stopping breast cancer metastasis by:

  • Revealing metastasis-driving cells: Cellular barcoding allows researchers to identify the specific cell variants responsible for metastasis through tagging and tracking thousands of individual cells within a tumor. Focusing on these “nasty seeders,” as lead researcher Dr. Delphine Merino described in the study, can help establish targeted therapies aimed at preventing metastasis to other organs.
  • Understanding metastatic pathways: The technique provides information on how cancer cells migrate and colonize distant sites. Tracking the movement of tagged cells is a way for scientists to grasp the complex pathways involved in metastasis, including interactions with the surrounding microenvironment and the bloodstream. This knowledge is pivotal for developing interventions that can halt metastatic progression.
  • Evaluating treatment efficacy: As the technology behind cell-tracking improves, barcoding and tracking clones will make it easier to gauge how treatments affect cancer cell behavior. For example, Professor Visvader said that while chemotherapy reduced tumor size, it did not eradicate all metastasis-driving clones, leading to cancer relapse. Understanding how treatments affect different cell populations will aid clinical researchers in optimizing therapeutic strategies to target metastatic cells.
  • Personalized treatment approaches: Singling out the specific clones driving metastasis can help understand and target the peculiarities of each patient’s cancer (not all cancers are the same). Treatment outcomes may improve, and the risk of metastatic recurrence may decrease as a result.

Armed with a technique that can distinguish metastasizing-driving clones from normal cells, Dr. Naik and his group can now focus on discovering ways to minimize the risk of breast cancer metastasis. Dr. Naik already has plans to uncover the distinct traits that enable cancer cells to migrate from the primary tumor to other regions. The anticipated follow-up to his research holds promise to improve the way healthcare professionals treat breast cancer’s different stages.

Overall, while the findings discussed in this article require further validation in clinical settings, the bottom line is that:

  • Dr. Naik’s revelations are a leap forward in understanding how breast cancer progresses.
  • Cellular barcoding technology has the potential to make positive changes in the lives of breast cancer patients.


What Are the Treatment Options for Metastatic Breast Cancer?

One of the most common but false misconceptions about breast cancer is that chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation are the only treatments available. Many people are unaware of the natural and integrative therapies that can stimulate tumor regression and lead to remission.

For men and women who wish to avoid conventional cancer treatments and their notorious side effects, book an appointment online or call our office today at 480-666-1403 to discuss potential treatment options. Our physicians will guide you in the right direction.

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