CORDIS - EU research results

Development of small molecule inhibitors of circulating tumor cell clusters

Project description

Targeting circulating metastatic cells

One of the hallmarks of cancer is its ability to leave the primary tumour site, enter the bloodstream and form new lesions in distant organs, a process known as metastasis. Circulating tumour cells (CTCs) exist as single or clusters of cells with the latter having a greater chance of colonisation. The working hypothesis of the EU-funded Cluster-Buster project is that disaggregation of CTC clusters through pharmacological inhibitors would prohibit metastasis formation. Researchers will screen and test compounds that target CTC clusters, opening a new pathway for anti-cancer therapy that targets metastatic cells in circulation.


Despite the great progress that has been made in treating cancer, metastasis remains incurable. Metastasis accounts for 8 million deaths per year worldwide and no agents are currently available to prevent the metastatic spread of cancer. The metastatic process begins with cancer cells leaving the primary tumor site and entering the blood circulation. In circulation, cancer cells are defined as circulating tumor cells (CTCs), and are typically found in the form of single CTCs or small CTC aggregates (CTC clusters). Upon dissemination and survival into distant organs, cancer cells give rise to proliferating metastatic lesions, which in turn can shed other CTCs and form additional metastases. While virtually all oncology-related drugs aim to kill cancer cells within a tumor, no drugs are available to target metastatic cells in circulation. As a consequence, no drugs are available to block or prevent the metastatic cascade.
We recently discovered that CTC clusters are exceptionally efficient metastatic precursors, capable to initiate a metastasis 50-times better than single CTCs. Within our ERC Starting Grant Project Holding-Hands, through a screen with 2’456 FDA-approved compounds, we discovered those that enable the disaggregation of CTC clusters in breast cancer mouse models and consequently, lead to metastasis suppression. This exciting new discovery implies that targeting CTC clusters is now feasible, and that this approach is likely to delay or prevent metastasis formation in cancer patients. Thus, within this Proof of Concept application, we aim to screen and patent additional cluster-targeting compounds with higher efficacy and better safety profile, to establish a new company whose aim is to commercialize cluster-targeting molecules, and to prepare for clinical trials.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 150 000,00
4051 Basel

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Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera Nordwestschweiz Basel-Stadt
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 150 000,00

Beneficiaries (1)