WNT Pathway for Metastatic Cancer
New research by scientists at the University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center suggests that prostate cancer manipulates an important group of signaling proteins called Wnts (pronounced “wints”) to establish itself in bone.
By changing the amount and activity of Wnt proteins, prostate cancer cells upset the normal balance between formation and destruction of bony tissue.
“There is strong evidence that Wnt proteins play a central role in regulating normal skeletal development in an embryo,” says Christopher L. Hall, Ph.D., a senior research fellow in urology at U-M. “But this is the first time Wnts have been shown to be involved in abnormal bone production in adult animals with prostate cancer.”
“Normal bone growth and remodeling depends on a controlled balance between production of new bone and resorption of existing bone,” says Evan T. Keller, D.V.M., Ph.D., a professor of urology and pathology in the U-M Medical School, who directed the U-M study. “When a tumor forms in bone, it upsets this balance.”
Several types of cancer metastasize to bone, according to Keller, but most of them tip the balance toward destruction – producing what scientists call osteolytic lesions, or holes in the bone. Prostate cancer is unique in its ability to trigger increased bone production, which creates what's called an osteoblastic lesion.
“In metastatic prostate cancer, we think that both processes are going on,” Keller says. “Our hypothesis is that prostate cancer cells first induce more bone resorption to help the invading cells become established in bone. But then there's a switch to increased bone production. Although we don't know the exact mechanism responsible for the switch, we know that it's related to the activity of Wnt proteins in prostate cancer cells.”
In the first phase of their research, U-M scientists measured the amount of Wnt protein in cells from normal human prostate tissue, localized prostate cancer and metastatic prostate cancer cells. Using the same cell lines, they also looked for the presence of a protein called DKK-1, which is known to inhibit Wnt activity. They discovered that the amounts of Wnt and DKK-1 protein present in human prostate cells varied inversely with the developmental stage of prostate cancer.
To test their hypothesis, U-M scientists injected human prostate cancer cells into the tibias, or long leg bones, of one group of immune-deficient mice. Twelve weeks later, U-M researchers removed and examined bone tumors from the mice. They found that these mice produced tumors with a dense overgrowth of bone. A second group of mice, injected with prostate cancer cells made to express the Wnt inhibitor, DKK-1, developed highly osteolytic tumor lesions, which destroyed most of the bone.
In previous research, the U-M team found that preventing the osteolytic changes associated with bone resorption also prevented prostate cancer from establishing itself in bone. By learning how DKK-1 blocks Wnt's signal to prostate cancer cells, they hope to learn how to control physical changes in bone that encourage the development of metastatic tumors.
In future research, U-M scientists will try to identify which of the nearly 20 known Wnt proteins is involved in bone changes associated with metastatic prostate cancer.