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‘Tunnels’ Between Cells: A New Target for Mesothelioma Treatment?

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Doctors with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis have just released a new report on cellular structures called tunneling nanotubes and their potential role in mesothelioma growth and proliferation.

Tunneling nanotubes (TnT), which are also sometimes referred to as “membrane nanotubes” or “intercellular bridges” are actin-based extensions or tubes that function as channels for transporting materials and information between cells. Because tunneling nanotubes are one of the important ways cells communicate with each other, the researchers theorized that they may also play a role in mesothelioma and devised a series of experiments to try to determine what that role is.

Among other findings, the researchers discovered that tissue taken from mesothelioma tumors contains many more tunneling nanotubes that normal mesothelial tissue and that these nanotubes can form between primary mesothelioma cells in human patients. “This markedly higher rate of TnT formation in mesothelioma, and likely in other cancers as well, provides evidence to support TnTs as a potential novel target for selective therapy of such cancers,” writes author Dr. Justin Ady with Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

In their newly published paper, Dr. Ady and his colleagues detail the novel approaches they have developed specifically for studying tunneling nanotubes in malignant mesothelioma. These methods allowed them to not only count the number of nanotubes among various mesothelioma subtypes and normal mesothelial cells, but also to examine changes in the length of TnTs over time in comparison to cell proliferation.

Noting the mounting evidence that TnTs are related to mesothelioma tumor growth, the researchers conclude that the structures “merit further investigation” in living animals and in people. If future studies can pinpoint the role of TnTs in mesothelioma tumors, it could open the door for novel cancer treatments aimed at stopping cancer growth and spread by disabling communication between cells.

The new study was published in a recent issue of Frontiers in Physiology.

Source: Ady, J et al, “Intercellular communication in malignant pleural mesothelioma: properties of tunneling nanotubes”, October 31, 2014, Frontiers in Physiology, eCollection 2014

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