Scientists have long wondered how cancers spread from their primary sites to take over distant organs in the body. Now a team of scientists from MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have found a key player in this process. Twist is a protein that until now was known only for its role in the developing embryo. But, it seems, Twist has a shady second career: promoting the spread of cancer.
The main thrust of Twists actions is to cause a profound makeover in the appearance and behavior of cells, says MIT biology professor Robert Weinberg, who led the team. Twist enables a drastic metamorphosis. Ordinarily, cells in organs form tightly bound sheets, but Twist enables them to separate and survive while prowling through the body. Jing Yang, a postdoctoral researcher who worked with Weinberg, points out that Twist is potentially useful as a marker for invasive cancers. That could lead to different approaches to treatment: when Twist is present and active, a vigorous counterattack is necessary to limit a cancers spread throughout the body.
Besides developing simple ways to test for Twist, Yang hopes to identify what induces Twista protein that should be turned off in adultsto revive in cancer cells.