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Jungwoo Lee
Jungwoo Leecourtesey photo/UMass Amherst

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst set out to discover how and why dormant cancer cells in the human body wake up after years of slumber, taking the lives of thousands of cancer survivors annually across the globe.

The team developed a microenvironment that mirrors that of humans. They inserted it into mice to understand what causes or prevents the transition from a dormant cancer cell to an active one, a phenomenon that is difficult to track, said Jungwoo Lee, UMass Amherst assistant professor of chemical engineering and lead author of the study.

The paper was published this month in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

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When a tumor forms in some part of the body, it grows, and begins to release tumor cells into the bloodstream, Lee said Friday in a telephone interview.

But some of those tumor cells, called disseminated tumor cells (DTCs), escape the original tumor site and make another organ their home, including tissues of the lung, bone, liver and brain, researchers said in statement from the university.

The DTCs then create a secondary tumor in their new host, Lee said, a process known as metastasis.

The microenvironment model helped researchers study the three stages of metastasis: early dormant, intermediate, and late advanced. Lee and others searched for the critical event tied to the relapse of dormant cancer cells.

In a statement, Lee said the model can be used to test “ . . . the efficacy of anti-metastasis (metastasis prevention) drug screening as currently there exists no good experimental model for long-term suppression of metastasis.”

But Lee said only a small amount of DTCs travel to a new host, so it’s hard to detect where they go. Previous “groundbreaking” research discovered that metastasis occurs well before the primary tumor forms in the body, Lee said, which makes it even harder for researchers to understand the process.

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Clinical care for more than 11 million cancer survivors in the US focuses on early detection, yet “the most limited aspect in treating cancer is the metastatic relapse after years and decades of asymptomatic dormancy,” researchers said.

And because the human life span has increased in the last few decades, cancer is now one of the leading causes of death, the study said, making “it imperative to develop better therapies to prevent or delay metastasis.”


Katie Camero can be reached at katie.camero@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @camerokt_