Scientists from the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and Imperial College London (ICL) have revealed two newly-discovered genes responsible for sensing the environment and adapting cell shape, offering new potential drug targets to stop skin cancer from metastasising.

Published in Cell Reports and collaboratively funded by the ICR, Cancer Research UK, ICL and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the study uncovers how cells become aware of the environment they are in and ‘shapeshift’ to adapt to it.

Cancer cells have the ability to change into a drill-shape or rounded, squishy shape to move around the body and poke through dense tissue such as bone or to squeeze through soft tissues and get into the blood.

Researchers developed a new system to study cells in 3D to mimic different areas of the body, using stage-scanning oblique plane microscopy to take images of melanoma cells on a flat and rigid surface or embedded within a 3D soft collagen hydrogel.

After analysing 60,000 cells from the 3D image taken when certain genes were ‘switched off’, the team discovered two genes, TIAM2 and FARP1, that were crucial for melanoma cells to change their shape in response to their environment.

The team believes that both of these genes could be targeted to prevent melanoma cancer from metastasising and could be strong candidates for drug discovery due to their similar structures to other proteins for drugs already in pre-clinical development.

Furthermore, the research team is currently creating artificial intelligence-based technologies to generate predictions about which drugs could be successful when using these 3D images of cells, cutting the time taken to develop a drug in half.

Professor Kristian Helin, chief executive, ICR, commented: “I hope that further research will lead to the development of new treatments for metastatic melanoma.”