Metastasis is the greatest challenge that people with cancer face—about 90% of cancer deaths can be attributed to metastatic disease. Metastasis starts when individual cancer cells within the primary tumor evolve and acquire new properties that allow them to spread to other tissues and survive there. The understanding of how cancer cells become metastatic is currently limited because of the difficulties in determining where, when, and how tumor cells interact with other tissues as they spread. With this project, a multidisciplinary team at the University of California, San Francisco, led by Andrei Goga, is applying several cutting-edge approaches to get at the roots of metastasis.
One aim of this project is to increase the understanding of tumor heterogeneity, which will help to untangle how certain tumor cells gain metastatic abilities. The researchers are using single-cell analysis and a multi-omic approach (including genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, and proteomics) to study different subsets of tumor cells, including cancer stem cells, from model systems. These models include organoids made from patient tumor samples and transgenic mice. Another aim is to understand the role that tumor―host interactions play in metastasis, including elements in the tumor microenvironment that promote the emergence of metastatic cells, the role of the immune system, and how tumor―nerve interactions in the extracellular matrix are associated with tumor aggression. A third aim is to use models to identify vulnerabilities in metastatic tumor cells and apply those findings to develop new cancer treatments.