Cancer cells from the fallopian tube — the precursors of ovarian cancer — communicate with healthy ovaries and trigger the release of a hormone called norepinephrine, creating an environment for the migration of cancer cells into the ovaries, Chicago researchers discovered.
The study, “Imaging Mass Spectrometry Reveals Crosstalk between the Fallopian Tube and the Ovary that Drives Primary Metastasis of Ovarian Cancer,” was published in the journal ACS Central Science.
Contrary to common belief, cells that cause ovarian cancer do not always originate in the ovaries. Recent evidence suggests that high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC) — the most malignant form of ovarian cancer — actually starts in the fallopian tube.
“Over the last several years we have come to learn that ovarian cancer cells, specifically high-grade serous ovarian cancer cells, originate in the fallopian tube and migrate to the ovary, where they become established as ovarian cancer,” Joanna Burdette, PhD, professor at the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy and the co-author of the paper, said in a press release.
Communication between tumors and healthy cells in their vicinity is known to play an essential role in cancer development and progression. Small molecules help in this communication. However, this interaction and the players that regulate it are poorly understood in HGSOC.
Researchers used imaging mass spectroscopy — an advanced technique that incorporates imaging methods to visualize the distribution of small molecules — to study the communication between fallopian tube cancer cells and the ovaries.
Using ovaries harvested from mice, the team studied chemical signals around the ovaries when left in the presence of healthy fallopian tube cells and cells engineered to represent various stages of fallopian tube cancer. The ovaries and the fallopian tube cells were incubated together in the laboratory for four days.
“This approach has the potential to be applied to a vast range of cell and tissue types to address many conditions,” said Lauren Sanchez, PhD, assistant professor at the UIC College of Pharmacy and corresponding author of the study.
Researchers found that the hormone norepinephrine was markedly high around the ovaries only when they were present along with the cancer cells from the fallopian tubes.
Norepinephrine is known to trigger cell migration. “This secretion likely contributes to the migration of tumor cells from the fallopian tube to the ovary, a key step in HGSOC progression,” investigators said.
“Using this novel mass spectrometry platform, we’ve been able to unlock one half of a complex puzzle. We now know that in the presence of cancer, the crosstalk between the fallopian tube and the ovary changes,” Sanchez said.
While the team has identified norepinephrine as the signal that causes cancer cells to migrate into the ovaries, it is still trying to figure out the signals that make the ovaries produce this hormone.
“Any advance we can make to better understand ovarian cancer has the potential to improve outcomes,” Burdette said.
“The findings from this study shed light on new avenues researchers can explore in the search for better treatment protocols and, perhaps, even prevention opportunities,” Burdette said.