We discuss why osteosarcomas are so complex and how Professor Heymann is taking a new direction in researching the treatment of this tumour

A cancer forms when a single cell in the body becomes abnormal and begins to grow and divide in an uncontrollable manner. However, despite developing from a single cell type, tumours are well known to display ‘tumour heterogeneity’ – a term which refers to the tumour being made up of many different cell types, which all display different behaviours and express different genes.

Osteosarcoma, the most common form of primary bone cancer in teenagers and young adults, has recently been observed as one of the most genetically complex tumours due to this tumour heterogeneity. Recent scientific publications have identified at least 14 genes which are able to drive the development of an osteosarcoma and an even larger amount of genes involved in the progression of this cancer.

Tumours present another level of complexity due to their microenvironment. The tumour microenvironment is made up of many different cell types, some cancerous and some non-cancerous, which work together and communicate to promote the progression of the tumour. This microenvironment harbours favourable conditions for the tumour and is known to contribute to drug resistance. However, there are many unanswered questions regarding the biology and exact functioning of this microenvironment.

Professor Dominique Heymann, one of our researchers at The University of Sheffield, is working hard to increase our knowledge of the bone microenvironment, in the hope to identify specific molecules that can tell us more about osteosarcoma and its complexity.

It is hoped that in the future, treatment will be developed to target several aspects of the tumour microenvironment, as well as destroying the cancerous cells. This hopes to progress treatment strategies for osteosarcoma, and many other cancer types, while reducing drug resistance and the risk of treatment failure.