Discovery pinpoints new connection between cancer cells, stem cells

July 1, 2009,

A molecule called telomerase, best known for enabling unlimited cell division of stem cells and cancer cells, has a surprising additional role in the expression of genes in an important stem cell regulatory pathway, say researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The unexpected finding may lead to new anticancer therapies and a greater understanding of how adult and embryonic stem cells divide and specialize.

"Telomerase is the factor that accounts for the unlimited division of cancer cells," said Steven Artandi, MD, PhD, associate professor of hematology, "and we're very excited about what this connection might mean in human disease." Artandi is the senior author of the research, which will be published in the July 2 issue of the journal Nature. He is also a member of Stanford's Cancer Center.

In many ways, telomerase is the quintessential molecule of mystery — hugely important and yet difficult to pin down. Telomerase was known to stabilize telomeres, special caps that protect the ends of . It stitches short pieces of DNA on these chromosome ends in and some , conferring a capacity for unlimited cell division denied to most of the body's other cells. Its importance is highlighted by the fact that it is inappropriately activated in more than 90 percent of cancer cells, suggesting that drugs or treatments that block telomerase activity may be effective anticancer therapies. However, its vast size, many components and relative rarity — it is not expressed in most of the body's cells — hinder attempts to learn more about it.

Artandi and his lab have spent many years identifying and studying the components of the telomerase complex. In this most recent study, they were following up on a previous finding suggesting that one part, a protein called TERT, was involved in more than just maintaining telomeres. They had discovered that overexpressing TERT in the skin of mice stimulated formerly resting adult stem cells to divide — even in the absence of other telomerase components. "This was a pretty clear hint that TERT was involved in something more than just telomere maintenance," he said.

Artandi and his colleagues recognized that the cells' response to TERT mimicked that seen when another protein, beta-catenin, was overexpressed in mouse skin. Beta-catenin is a component of a vital signaling cascade known as the Wnt pathway, which is important in development, stem cell maintenance and stem cell activation. Stanford developmental biologist and professor Roeland Nusse, PhD, a collaborator on the current study, identified the first Wnt molecule in 1982.

In this study, Artandi and his colleagues purified the TERT protein from cultured human cells and found that it was associated with a chromatin-remodeling protein implicated in the Wnt pathway. They showed that overexpression of TERT in the presence of the remodeling protein enhanced the expression of Wnt-inducible genes. Finally, they found that TERT is required for mouse to respond appropriately to Wnt signals and that blocking TERT expression impairs the development of frog embryos.

"This is completely novel," said Artandi, who went on to show that TERT physically occupies the upstream promoter regions of the . "No one had any idea that TERT was directly regulating the Wnt pathway." He speculates that interfering with the protein's Wnt-associated activity may be a faster way to inhibit cancer cells than blocking telomerase activity, which depends on the gradual shortening of telomeres with each cell division.

"The Wnt pathway and telomerase activity are two separate but coherent functions in stem cell self-renewal and cancer cell proliferation," said Artandi. "Nature evolved a way to connect these two crucial functions by recruiting a component of telomerase directly into the Wnt pathway." The researchers are now investigating what role TERT may play in normal and cancerous cells.

Source: Stanford University Medical Center (news : web)

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Researchers identify blood biomarkers that may help diagnose, confirm concussions

April 20, 2018
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, Georgetown University and the University of Rochester have found that specific small molecules in blood plasma may be useful in determining whether someone has sustained ...

Stem-cell technology aids 3-D printed cartilage repair

April 20, 2018
Novel stem-cell technology developed at Swinburne will be used to grow the massive number of stem cells required for a new hand-held 3-D printer that will enable surgeons to create patient-specific bone and cartilage.

DOR protein deficiency favors the development of obesity

April 20, 2018
Obesity is a world health problem. Excessive accumulation of fat tissue (adipose tissue) increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and some types of cancer. However, some obese individuals are less ...

Defect in debilitating neurodegenerative disease reversed in mouse nerves

April 19, 2018
Scientists have developed a new drug compound that shows promise as a future treatment for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an inherited, often painful neurodegenerative condition that affects nerves in the hands, arms, feet ...

Enduring cold temperatures alters fat cell epigenetics

April 19, 2018
A new study in fat cells has revealed a molecular mechanism that controls how lifestyle choices and the external environment affect gene expression. This mechanism includes potential targets for next-generation drug discovery ...

Molecule that dilates blood vessels hints at new way to treat heart disease

April 19, 2018
Americans die of heart or cardiovascular disease at an alarming rate. In fact, heart attacks, strokes and related diseases will kill an estimated 610,000 Americans this year alone. Some medications help, but to better tackle ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

E_L_Earnhardt
1 / 5 (1) Jul 02, 2009
ZERO KELVIN STOPS EVERYTHING. ZERO CELSIUS SUSPENDS MITOSIS - CURES CANCER!
E_L_Earnhardt
1 / 5 (1) Jul 02, 2009
tHANK YOU FOR YOUR EXCELLENT WORK!

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.