Liver cancer is fought from its environment

The second deadliest cancer in the world is liver cancer. It is particularly fatal when it affects the bile ducts. It has been studied extensively, with a focus on malignant cells, and there is virtually no effective cure.

Iván Moya, an Ecuadorian biologist at the University of the Americas (UDLA), leads a team that seeks to fight the disease from another angle: the microenvironment in which liver tumors thrive. The specialized scientific journal Science published the results of the research of this specialist in biomedical sciences.

Moya has always been interested in the way things worked. After graduating from college in Ecuador, Moya focused on how cancer works.

He had the opportunity to do his doctorate and his post-doctorate in biomedicine at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. There, he found that virtually all cancer studies looked at cancer cells.

This scholar considered it important to go further and study the microenvironment in which malignant cells develop, that is to say within the organ that they affect. This curiosity led him to discover the mechanisms of their interaction with normal cells. The research was carried out, already graduated, in the laboratory of his university in Louvain.

Moya decided to return to Ecuador two years ago and started working at the UDLA research laboratory in Quito. However, he did not leave his team in Leuven and continued to investigate the environment of cancerous tumors. He does this with 20 experts from the Belgian university and, at the same time, heads a research group, made up of two collaborators and six students from UDLA.

The study was carried out in mice and used models allowing the expression of oncogenes (genes linked to cancer) in the liver of rodents. It was about intentionally forming tumors.

Then they worked with a gene responsible for regenerating the liver in the mice themselves. The cells around the tumor have thus been activated in order to be able to regenerate.

This gene is called Yap. By overactivating it, the liver responds by executing a program that kills tumors. The Yap gene belongs to a group of genes that regulate the growth of organs.

The scientist discovered that it is possible to deactivate, reactivate and even hyperactivate this function in the cells that make up the liver tissue that surrounds the malignant tumor.

Moya discovered that the cells around him were mounting a defensive response. It is similar to the cellular regeneration of tissues which is activated when we injure ourselves.

The great discovery was to verify that the first presence of a tumor in the liver implements this program of genetic regeneration in a “soft” way.

The team found that if they turned off this mechanism with genetic tools, tumors grew much faster. And if they over-activated the function, the malignant cells were eliminated.

Oncologist Gerardo Silva says the discovery could change treatment strategies for liver cancer. Moya claims it’s still early days, but they’ve deciphered a completely unknown phenomenon and that it starts from the body’s natural mechanisms.

For Silva, this method is analogous to arousing the immune system to attack cancer, which has already developed therapies. By activating the cells of the surrounding tissue, it results in the elimination of the tumor in situ. This is something that is always sought after: not to affect the rest of the patient’s body.

Moya recalls that oncogenes often confer extraordinary undesirable properties on a normal cell, such as extra survival, hyperproliferation, and violation of controls to move to other parts and cause metastasis.

In addition, there are specific oncogenes that mutate cells, even though they acquire different characteristics from their origin. For example, a type A, typical of the liver, can turn into B from one bile duct, turning liver cancer into another. A real “Frankenstein”.

The researcher considers that in the future, genetic or drug technology strategies could be considered to hyperactivate the regenerative response to eliminate tumors. In addition, it is necessary to know if the mechanism is general or only of the liver.