New technique creates cancer stem cells

April 9, 2008

With a bit of genetic trickery, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have turned normal skin cells into cancer stem cells, a step that will make these naturally rare cells easier to study.

Cancer stem cells are thought to be the ones that drive a cancer, and are therefore the targets of any cancer therapy that must kill them in order to be effective. Understanding these cells has been a challenge, however, because they are rare, difficult to isolate and don't grow well in the lab.

Howard Chang, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology and senior author of the work, said being able to generate cancer stem cells from normal cells will help move that research forward. "The upshot is that there may be a way to directly create cancer stem cells in the lab so you don't always have to purify these rare cells from patients in order to study them directly," he said. The work will be published in the April 10 issue of Cell Stem Cell.

The study also demonstrated that cancer stem cells are much more similar to the stem cells found in embryos, which can develop to form all tissue types, than they are to the more-restricted adult stem cells. This finding has important implications for understanding how cells go awry when they become cancerous.

Cancer stem cells were first discovered in 1994 by researchers at the University of Toronto. In 2003, Michael Clarke, PhD, who was then at the University of Michigan, discovered cancer stem cells in the first solid tumor, breast cancer in this case, showing that the concept of cancer stem cells wasn't restricted to blood cancers. Clarke has since moved to Stanford, where he is the Karel H. and Avice N. Beekhuis Professor in Cancer Biology, and Stanford has become a leader in cancer stem cell research, with teams finding cancer stem cells in head and neck cancer, colorectal cancer and additional blood cancers. Laboratory researchers at the medical school are also beginning to work with clinical groups to apply cancer stem cell findings to patient care.

One question among cancer stem cell researchers has been how those cells originate. "By the time a patient comes to a hospital, they already have a cancer, so that process has already happened," Chang said. Generating cancer stem cells in the lab gives scientists insight into how the transformation happens and could lead to new ways of either stopping the transformation early on or detecting and destroying those cells once they form.

Chang and first author David Wong, MD, PhD, postdoctoral scholar, began to answer the question of how cancer stem cells originate by comparing genetic activity in embryonic stem cells with the activity in normal adult stem cells. They found a large group of genes that were active only in embryonic cells. They then looked at which genes were active in cancer stem cells and found that the pattern resembled that of embryonic stem cells.

The finding was a surprise, given that once embryonic stem cells become committed to forming adult cells, such as skin, brain or blood, they were thought to forever deactivate those embryonic genes. Instead, Chang said this work suggests that when those adult cells become cancerous, they turn those embryonic genes back on.

The group also noticed that the genes active in both embryonic and cancer stem cells are controlled by a few biological master regulators. One of those genes, called Myc, has also been shown recently to help convert normal skin cells into embryonic-like cells.

By activating two genes in addition to Myc in normal skin cells, those cells were transformed into what appeared to be cancer stem cells. When transplanted into laboratory mice, the cells formed tumors, one hallmark of a true cancer stem cell.

From here, Chang and Wong hope to learn more about how these genes activate a cancerous state. "Our particular interest is in using this approach to find the mechanism that turns a normal cell into a cancer stem cell," said Chang, who is also the Kenneth G. and Elaine A. Langone Scholar of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

Source: Stanford University

Explore further: How pomegranate extract alters breast cancer stem cell properties

Related Stories

How pomegranate extract alters breast cancer stem cell properties

November 15, 2017
A University at Albany research team has found evidence suggesting that the same antioxidant that gives pomegranate fruit their vibrant red color can alter the characteristics of breast cancer stem cells, showing the superfood's ...

Study reveals why testicular cancer is so responsive to chemo

November 14, 2017
Cornell researchers have taken a major step toward answering a key question in cancer research: Why is testicular cancer so responsive to chemotherapy, even after it metastasizes?

Misregulated protein breakdown promotes leukemias and brain cancer

November 9, 2017
An enzyme that is responsible for the breakdown of specific amino acids in food plays a key role in the development of leukemias and brain cancer, according to scientists from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg. ...

Th1/17 hybrid T cells offer potent and durable anti-tumor response in preclinical model

November 9, 2017
Adoptive cell therapy for cancer involves harvesting T cells from a patient and expanding and sometimes modifying them in the laboratory before reinfusion. It has been challenging to create T cells that are both potent and ...

Researchers report findings on the effects of fat on stem cells

November 9, 2017
You really are what you eat—especially when it comes to fats, according to a study this week in the journal Science Advances that was co-authored by Rice University undergraduate Allison Skinkle and colleagues at the Laboratory ...

The first effective therapy against glioblastoma achieved by attacking telomeres

November 14, 2017
The Telomere and Telomerase Group at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) has shown that it is possible to block the growth of human and murine glioblastoma in mouse models by blocking the TRF1 protein, an essential ...

Recommended for you

Hibernating ground squirrels provide clues to new stroke treatments

November 17, 2017
In the fight against brain damage caused by stroke, researchers have turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: hibernating ground squirrels.

Age and gut bacteria contribute to multiple sclerosis disease progression

November 17, 2017
Researchers at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School published a study suggesting that gut bacteria at young age can contribute to multiple sclerosis (MS) disease onset and progression.

Molecular guardian defends cells, organs against excess cholesterol

November 16, 2017
A team of researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health has illuminated a critical player in cholesterol metabolism that acts as a molecular guardian in cells to help maintain cholesterol levels within a safe, ...

Prototype ear plug sensor could improve monitoring of vital signs

November 16, 2017
Scientists have developed a sensor that fits in the ear, with the aim of monitoring the heart, brain and lungs functions for health and fitness.

Ancient enzyme could boost power of liquid biopsies to detect and profile cancers

November 16, 2017
Scientists are developing a set of medical tests called liquid biopsies that can rapidly detect the presence of cancers, infectious diseases and other conditions from only a small blood sample. Researchers at The University ...

FDA to crack down on risky stem cell offerings

November 16, 2017
U.S. health authorities announced plans Thursday to crack down on doctors pushing stem cell procedures that pose the gravest risks to patients amid an effort to police a burgeoning medical field that previously has received ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.