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North Texas Researchers Unlock A Mystery About Lymph Nodes And How Cancer Spreads

Female doctor examines a CT scan or x-ray  image while a patient lies in a hospital bed.
Female doctor carefully examines a CT scan against the background of a patient lying in bed in the emergency room.

Cancer cells can spread from one organ to another by directly entering the bloodstream. But more often it’s after the cells enter the blood through the lymph nodes. Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center now believe they know why.

Dr. Sean Morrison says the vast majority of cancer cells will die when they try to leave the primary tumor and migrate to a different site in the body.

“Part of the reason for that is that when the cells try to migrate through the blood, highly reactive molecules get generated as a result of cellular metabolism," says the director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center, "And most of the cells die as a result of the oxidative stress.”

Jessalyn Ubellacker, a postdoctoral fellow in Morrison’s lab, figured how to isolate the melanoma cells from the lymph, and went on to realize the lymph protects the cells.

“They load up on the protective molecules,” Morrison said, “so that when they subsequently move into the blood, they're bulletproof.”

How The Protection Works

  • The lymph also transports fat around the body. It turns out that certain fat molecules protect cancer cells from oxidative stress. The oxidative stress is particularly damaging to fat in the membranes of the cancer cells.
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids, like olive oil, help protect the cancer cells from oxidative stress. The cancer cells are able to load up on those fatty acids while they're in the lymph. And that makes them resistant to the oxidative stress when they subsequently move into the bloodstream.

What This Could Mean For Cancer Treatment

  • "Now that we know what's keeping the cancer cells alive in the early stages of metastasis, we're thinking about ways of targeting those mechanisms to try to kill the cancer cells, when they would normally be moving through the lymph."
  • "We're looking at various strategies for changing fat metabolism in the cancer cells to try to sensitize them to cell death, so that we would be able to give a patient some combination of dietary intervention, as well as drugs, to try to push the cancer cells off the cliff."
  • "So, for a patient who might be at high risk of progressing to metastatic disease, we might be able to further reduce the efficiency of metastasis to prevent patients from progressing."

Cancer In One Place Is Easier To Fight

"If you catch cancer early before it spreads, you can almost always cut it off. Once it spreads, you can't easily cut it off anymore. If we can intervene at those early stages and reduce the percentage of patients that even have a regional recurrence in a lymph node, we could increase survival rates."


Nature: Lymph Node Study

The Secret of Lymph

Interview highlights were lighted edited for clarity.

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