The 'post office' of the cell -- or the Golgi apparatus as it is more commonly known -- has the ability to package proteins in order to transport them to other parts of the cell or to deliver them to areas outside of the cell.
"If we think of the cancer cell like a tent structure: it has fixed sides to hold its shape and is firmly anchored to the ground in order to secure its contents. In order to move the tent, we have to collapse its sides in order to lift it out of its anchored position and carry it away," said Daniel Ungar from the University of York in Britain.
"A similar process happens with cancer when it metastasises -- its outer edges are altered resulting in it becoming un-anchored," Ungar said.
In the study, the researchers identified that a protein, called PAQR11, inside the 'cellular post office', receives a signal from another protein, called Zeb1.
The Golgi -- the delivery centre for communications between proteins -- receives the signal that the movement of membrane sacks around the cell should be changed.
This change in movement alters the perimeter of the cancer cell and, much like a tent's sides collapsing, allows it to move from its original resting place to anywhere in the body, the researchers explained.
The findings could point towards new therapeutics, targeted at a particular communication mechanism in the cell.
"Now that we recognise this system, there is the potential to develop a drug that interferes with this communication and prevents the Golgi apparatus from facilitating the movement of the membrane sacks," Ungar said.
The research was published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
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