Scientists discover way to target cancer associated fibroblasts (CAFs)

In a move that could potentially change the way numerous cancers are treated, scientists have discovered ways to treat healthy cells that have come under attack from cancer cells.

The research was carried out by scientists at the University of Southampton and was funded by Cancer Research UK. The findings, originally published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, shows that targeting the enzyme NOX4 can inhibit cancer associated fibroblasts, or CAFs. The research was carried out on mice, and was shown to reduce the size of tumours by as much as 50 per cent in some cases. Professor Gareth Thomas was the study’s Lead researcher and is also the Chair of Experimental Pathology at the University of Southampton. According to Professor Thomas, the findings could offer hope in cases where cancer cells are currently unresponsive to treatment. “By looking at many types of cancer, we have identified a common mechanism responsible for CAF formation in tumours,” he says. “These cells make cancers aggressive and difficult to treat, and we can see exciting possibilities for targeting CAFs in many patients who don’t respond well to existing therapies.”


What are CAFs?

The body is home to Fibroblasts, healthy cells tasked with holding organs together.


When these cells become attacked by and infected with cancerous cells, they become CAFs. These cancer associated fibroblasts are what gives cancer strength, helping the disease to evade treatment and spread to different organs whilst also helping tumours grow. The higher a patient’s number of CAFs, the lower the chances of survival for a number of cancers, such as colorectal cancer and those affecting the head and neck cancers.

This research has determined that these CAFs cannot form without NOX4, and so began blocking this enzyme with a drug that is currently used to treat organ fibrosis. According to Cancer Research UK’s senior science information officer, Dr Áine McCarthy, the positive response in mice could spell good news for the future of disease treatment in humans. “Some cancers are incredibly difficult to treat, and can use the body’s own cells to help them grow, evade treatment and spread around the body,” she said in a press release. “Researchers have been trying to unlock the secrets behind this for many years and this study is a big step forward in understanding how some cancers achieve this. These findings show that CAFs can be targeted with a drug and their ‘pro-tumour’ effects can be reversed in mice, giving researchers a starting point to develop new and potentially more effective treatments in the future.”