The Catalan Joan Massagué, director of the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York, and his team of scientists, have deciphered the origins of metastasis, a discovery that changes the way we see the disease and has shed light on improving treatments in the future


A scientific revolution is taking place that is helping us to understand and fight against cancer. This is the assessment of the latest finding by Catalan Joan Massagué, director of the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York, whose team has discovered that the cells that initiate the development of metastasis “hack” a natural repair mechanism in the human body and use it to spread cancer to other organs. A discovery that opens up new avenues for finding a treatment for metastasis, which is responsible for about 90% of cancer deaths, and which has been the result of a series of investigations that began almost twenty years ago, when Massagué decided to investigate the biology of metastasis – when, until that time, most biological research on cancer had focused on primary tumors.



Joan Massagué. Photo: EFE



In the research, presented this week in the journal Nature, Massagué and his team demonstrate that the cells that initiate metastasis maliciously employ a mechanism that, in healthy tissues, can be beneficial and allow them to regenerate when they break. Specifically, cells secrete a molecule called L1CAM that promotes both adhesion between cells and helps wounds to heal, it also helps cancer cells to spread. The scientists tested whether this molecule was also involved in the origin of primary tumours, from which metastasis occurs, and discovered that it is not. This led to the conclusion that the stem cells that form the tumours are different from those that form the metastases, that is to say, that the metastases do not derive from genetic mutations but from a reprogramming of the cells, just as in common wounds, which allows them to regenerate by creating metastases.

A finding, in short, that represents another step in the fight against cancer, a disease that is the leading cause of death in Spain (more than 52,000 people in 2017, according to data from the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology, SEOM) and 8.2 million deaths worldwide (according to WHO data in 2012).


Spanish physicist Pablo Jarilloo receives the Wolf Award


In addition to Massagué’s breakthrough, this week Spanish scientists have received another piece of great news: the team of the physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Pablo Jarillo, has been awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics, considered to be the prelude to the Nobel Prize, for discovering the superconductivity of graphene by rotating two layers of graphene at a magical angle, which has revolutionized the fields of energy transmission and theoretical physics.


Pablo Jarillo. Photo: El Diario Vasco


Jarillo and his group arranged two sheets of graphene rotated at a magical angle of 1.1 degrees, the only position in which graphene is capable of conducting electrons without resistance and transporting electricity without loss. This superconductivity property could revolutionize energy transmission, transportation systems or scanners used in medicine.


Great findings from Spanish scientists


In addition to Massagué’s great discovery and Jarillo’s award, many Spanish scientists have contributed to the advancement of science on key issues.

The recently deceased Margarita Salas, in her study on the bacterial virus Phi29, clarified the functioning of DNA polymerase. The discovery by the molecular biologist, founder of the first molecular genetics research group in Spain in 1967 and with more than 300 international publications to her name, demonstrated that DNA instructions were transformed into proteins, which relate to each other to form a functional virus. And among these proteins is DNA polymerase, which is responsible for viral DNA replication and has properties that make it unique for DNA amplification. It is used worldwide and is applied in forensic, oncological and archaeological medicine.


Margarita Salas


In neurology, the work of Rafael Yuste, a researcher at Columbia University and named by Nature magazine as one of the most influential scientists in the world. Yuste devised the BRAIN project with the objective of determining a map of the human brain. He worked with 500 laboratories to develop new methods and techniques to be able to read brain activity and alter it. Among his most notable achievements, he developed the calcium imaging technique that allows the measurement of neuronal activity thanks to the chemical changes that are produced in the neurons when an electrical signal passes through them.

And in chemistry, one of the most well-known Spanish names is undoubtedly Avelino Corma, founder of the Institute of Chemical Technique in Valencia in 1990, a centre with great prestige that is a world reference in this field and winner of the Prince of Asturias Award in 2014. He has more than 150 patents, among which the catalyst stands out, a substance that stimulates and increases the speed of chemical reactions. It is used to manufacture many products such as food packaging. He is a member of the editorial board of some of the most important scientific journals related to catalysis. He also works on the transformation of biomass into energy.