Camouflaged cancer cells and their role in spreading metastasis

Colon cancer cells can mask themselves as normal cells in order to bypass the defence system of an organism and spread all over the body, causing metastasis. This is what has been discovered by a research group from the Istituto Clinico Humanitas, in a study designed and led by Luigi Laghi and conducted by Giuseppe Celesti, which has been published on Gastroenterology.

Researchers also managed to unveil the molecular mechanism through which such a mimesis occurs. “We already know that tumor is made not only by cancer cells but also, for the most part, by normal, non-malignant cells, which constitutes the stroma,” explains Alberto Mantovani, scientific director of Humanitas, who supervised the study together with Alberto Malesci, director of the Department of Gastroenterology. What Laghi’s team discovered is that, within the stroma, there may be cancer cells disguised as normal ones.

Researchers managed to attach a molecular marker to cancer cells but, surprisingly, they found such marker also on cells that were far away from the tumor mass and that those cells were quite indiscernible from normal ones. “This could mean that some of the metastatic mechanisms may activate much before than we have always imagined,” says Luigi Laghi.

“At a diagnostic level, this study opens the possibility to predict a tumor’s aggressiveness level and its metastatic potential, with a higher precision compared to a conventional histological exam,” concludes Alberto Malesci. “Also, the molecular marker we used may become extremely useful for non-invasive diagnosis of colon cancer”.


Humanitas is a highly specialized Hospital, Research and Teaching Center. Built around centers for the prevention and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular, neurological and orthopedic disease – together with an Ophthalmic Center and a Fertility Center – Humanitas also operates a highly specialised Emergency Department.