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"Our original hypothesis was that cancer cells were modifying their metabolism based on communications they were receiving from cells in the microenvironment near the tumor," said Nagrath, assistant professor of chemical and bio molecular engineering at Rice and co-author of a new study describing the research in the open-access journal eLife. "None of us expected to find that they were converting the signals directly into energy."
The results were part of a four-year study by Nagrath, his students and collaborators at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and other institutions about the role of exosomes in cancer metabolism. Exosomes are tiny packets of proteins, microRNA and nucleic acids that cells emit into their environment to both communicate with neighboring cells and influence their behavior. Nagrath, who directs Rice's Laboratory for Systems Biology of Human Diseases, found that some cancer cells are capable of using these information packets as a source of energy to fuel tumor growth.