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University of Iowa researchers propose a model to explain the spread of an eye cancer

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Cancer that develops in one part of the body often spreads to another site in a process called metastasis.

Scientists have not worked out the details to explain how cancer spreads throughout the body or why some forms of the disease distribute to specific organs. However, research conducted at the University of Iowa College of Medicine sheds new light on the mysteries of metastasis.

The work was a collaborative effort between Dr. Mary J.C. Hendrix, professor and head of anatomy and cell biology, and associate director for basic research at the UI Cancer Center; Dr. Robert Folberg, F.C. Blodi Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, and professor of pathology; their colleagues in those departments; and the UI Cancer Center.

The investigators studied a cancer of the eye known as uveal melanoma -- a potentially blinding and fatal form of cancer that tends to spread to the liver. Currently, the most common forms of treatment for the cancer are radiation therapy, which may cause blindness or removal of the eye. The UI research may lead to new forms of vision-sparing treatments that prolong the life of the patients. The findings, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Pathology and illustrated on the journal's cover, may also help scientists better understand the metastatic process.

There are proteins located inside normal cells that help maintain the cell's shape. In some forms of cancer, however, abnormal shape-maintaining proteins appear, thus increasing the likelihood that the cancer will spread. This is true for other forms of cancer, not just uveal melanoma.

The researchers found that malignant eye cells containing the abnormal proteins respond to a substance called hepatocyte growth factor/scatter factor, also known as HGF/SF. HGF/SF attracts blood vessels into the tumor and causes the cancer cells to divide, change shape and spread. The liver is a major site of HGF/SF production, and uveal melanoma tends to spread to that organ selectively.

Hendrix believes that this research can help explain how cancer cells begin to invade and distribute throughout the body.

"We hope that this experimental work will provide us and others with data to design new and more effective forms of cancer treatment," Hendrix said.

This work was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute, the National Eye Institute, the UI Endowment, and Research to Prevent Blindness, Inc.