Metastasis Research: Hope for Patients

University of Chicago Medicine cancer researchers have made metastasis a priority, and their efforts are beginning to pay off.

Most cancer deaths are caused by the spread of malignancy from a primary site to distant organs. Current treatments extend life, often for just weeks or months, but rarely cure.

Research at UCM has shown that patients whose tumors have spread to as many as five organs beyond the site of origin can be successfully treated with advanced radiation therapy.

In an ongoing study here, patients received radiation in intense, precisely guided doses using a new technology called stereotactic body radiotherapy. Standard therapies were not considered feasible or effective for these patients, and their chances of long-term survival were viewed as slim.

But in published results, about 20 percent of patients in the first treatment cohort were cleared of their tumors and had remained cancer free 15 months after treatment. More than 60 patients with no other options have now been treated for late-stage cancer.

Besides offering hope to patients, the trial also provides support for a new theory of cancer spread called oligometastasis developed at UCM.

Oligometastasis is a purported middle stage in which tumors have spread to distant organs but have not yet become resistant to treatment. UCM researchers are looking for the genetic signatures of cancer cells still in this middle state, with the ultimate goal of devising genetic tests that will pinpoint patients most likely to be cured by intense, guided radiation.

The Ludwig Center at the University of Chicago

The University of Chicago Medicine’s Ludwig Institute is exclusively dedicated to the study of metastasis.

Launched in 2006 with a $20 million donation from the Virginia & D.K. Ludwig Fund for Cancer Research, the Institute brings together researchers with various expertise—including molecular biology, genetics, imaging, bioinformatics and clinical practice—to study the mechanisms by which malignant cells take cancer’s “last, lethal step.”