University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center researcher Ren Xu, PhD, was recently awarded a major National Cancer Institute (NCI) grant to support his research on the interplay between cancer cells and platelets. A total of $2 million will support Xu’s research over the next five years.

Platelets are tiny cells in our blood that bind to the sites of damaged vessels to stop bleeding. In cancer patients, activated platelets can adhere to circulating cancer cells and promote metastasis – their spread to surrounding tissues and distant organs in the body.

Scientists do not completely understand the platelet-cancer cell interactions that promote metastasis. Xu's research suggests mRNA transfer from platelets plays a critical role. The NCI grant will support Xu’s further investigations into the molecular mechanisms of platelet-mRNA transfer.

“Understanding this process will fill a critical gap in knowledge about the intercellular communication during cancer progression and could lead to the development of new strategies to stop cancer from spreading and improve treatment outcomes,” said Xu, a professor in the UK College of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences

Xu recently found that a protein called CD9 mediated the platelet-cancer cell interaction. His lab also discovered that a platelet molecule called PF4 was shown to make cancer cells more able to spread and grow. Xu’s research supported by this grant will seek to understand how CD9 and PF4 work to transfer the mRNA and promote metastasis.

The new knowledge may help to identify a potential therapeutic target to suppress the platelet- induced cancer progression and metastasis.

Xu will be collaborating on the project with scientists including Xia Liu, PhD, in the UK College of Medicine’s Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology and Zhenyu Li, PhD, at Texas A&M University.