Skip to Content


Looking beyond the cancer cell

Fall 2013

Modeling the microenvironment

By Hilary Graham

Today, scientists recognize that Paget’s observations were valid and that when developing new treatments for patients, both the seed and the soil should be considered. Yet, many scientific experiments continue to rely on studying cells that are grown in plastic dishes, living conditions that are completely artificial and, therefore, inherently biased.

Taking a new path, Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., professor in Molecular and Cellular Oncology, is leveraging data from the Cancer Genome Atlas to conduct in vivo context-specific screens that will identify new genetic elements deregulated in cancer.

Once a promising target is identified, his group performs these screens in the appropriate organ context to validate the target. By directly studying patient tumor tissue samples that often resist standard of care, his research group ensures that research findings are directly applicable to patients, who currently have no therapeutic options.

In collaboration with MD Anderson’s Center for Co-Clinical Trials, they’re also generating new mouse-model systems that carefully control for lineage, genetic and microenvironmental influences. Draetta envisions that in the near future similar analyses will be available for individual patient tumors — making personalized medicine a reality.

Cancer TypeMain sites of metastasis*
BladderBone, liver, lung
BreastBone, brain, liver, lung
ColorectalLiver, lung, peritoneum
KidneyAdrenal gland, bone, brain, liver, lung
LungAdrenal gland, bone, brain, liver
MelanomaBone, brain, liver, lung, skin/muscle
OvaryLiver, lung, peritoneum
PancreasLiver, lung, peritoneum
ProstateAdrenal gland, bone, liver, lung
StomachLiver, lung, peritoneum
ThyroidBone, liver, lung
UterusBone, liver, lung, peritoneum, vagina

*Taken from the National Cancer Institute fact sheet on metastatic cancer.

Delving further into the soil

Related story: Seed, soil and metastasis

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center