New breast cancer stem cell findings explain how cancer spreads

January 14, 2014

Breast cancer stem cells exist in two different states and each state plays a role in how cancer spreads, according to an international collaboration of researchers. Their finding sheds new light on the process that makes cancer a deadly disease.

"The lethal part of cancer is its metastasis so understanding how metastasis occurs is critical," says senior study author Max S. Wicha, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Oncology and director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. "We have evidence that cancer stem cells are responsible for metastasis – they are the seeds that mediate cancer's spread. Now we've discovered how the stem cells do this."

First, on the outside of the tumor, a type of stem cell exists in a state called the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) state. These stem cells appear dormant but are very invasive and able to get into the bloodstream, where they travel to distant parts of the body.

Once there, the stem cells transition to a second state that displays the opposite characteristics, called the mesenchymal-epithelial transition state (MET). These cells are capable of growing and making copies of themselves, producing new tumors.

"You need both forms of cancer stem cells to metastasize and grow in distant organs. If the stem cell is locked in one or the other state, it can't form a metastasis," Wicha says.

The findings, which are published in the January issue of Stem Cell Reports, raise a number of questions about how to treat or prevent . Researchers must now understand whether new therapies must attack both forms of the stem cell to be successful. Different pathways regulate each type of stem cell, which suggests that effective therapies must be able to target multiple pathways.

In addition, current tests that look at circulating in the blood to help determine whether the cancer is spreading do not appear to capture the EMT stem cells, which are the that travel through the blood. U-M researchers are working with colleagues from the U-M College of Engineering to develop new tools to isolate the EMT stem cells from the blood of cancer patients.

"Now that we know we are looking at two different states of cancer stem cells, we can use markers that distinguish these states to get a better sense of where the are and to determine the effectiveness of our treatments," Wicha says.

The study looked specifically at but the researchers believe the findings likely have implications for other cancer types as well.

Breast cancer statistics: 234,580 Americans will be diagnosed with breast this year and 40,030 will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society

Explore further: How prostate cancer cells evolve

More information: Stem Cell Reports, Vol. 2, No. 1; Jan. 14, 2014

Related Stories

How prostate cancer cells evolve

December 4, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—UCLA researchers have discovered how prostate cancer stem cells evolve as the disease progresses, a finding that could help point the way to more highly targeted therapies. 

Cancer hijack

July 19, 2013
Genetically unstable breast cancer cells appear to hijack a mechanism used by healthy stem cells to determine how they should develop into different tissues, according to new research.

Some immune cells appear to aid cancer cell growth, study finds

September 5, 2013
The immune system is normally known for protecting the body from illness. But a subset of immune cells appear to be doing more harm than good.

Researchers find driver of breast cancer stem cell metastasis

July 24, 2012
The finding involves the cancer gene RhoC, which has previously been shown to promote metastasis of many types of cancer. RhoC levels increase as breast cancer progresses and high levels of RhoC are associated with worse ...

Recommended for you

Outdoor light at night linked with increased breast cancer risk in women

August 17, 2017
Women who live in areas with higher levels of outdoor light at night may be at higher risk for breast cancer than those living in areas with lower levels, according to a large long-term study from Harvard T.H. Chan School ...

Scientists develop novel immunotherapy technology for prostate cancer

August 17, 2017
A study led by scientists at The Wistar Institute describes a novel immunotherapeutic strategy for the treatment of cancer based on the use of synthetic DNA to directly encode protective antibodies against a cancer specific ...

Scientists develop blood test that spots tumor-derived DNA in people with early-stage cancers

August 16, 2017
In a bid to detect cancers early and in a noninvasive way, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center report they have developed a test that spots tiny amounts of cancer-specific DNA in blood and have used it to ...

Toxic formaldehyde is produced inside our own cells, scientists discover

August 16, 2017
New research has revealed that some of the toxin formaldehyde in our bodies does not come from our environment - it is a by-product of an essential reaction inside our own cells. This could provide new targets for developing ...

Cell cycle-blocking drugs can shrink tumors by enlisting immune system in attack on cancer

August 16, 2017
In the brief time that drugs known as CDK4/6 inhibitors have been approved for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, doctors have made a startling observation: in certain patients, the drugs—designed to halt cancer ...

Researchers find 'switch' that turns on immune cells' tumor-killing ability

August 16, 2017
Molecular biologists led by Leonid Pobezinsky and his wife and research collaborator Elena Pobezinskaya at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have published results that for the first time show how a microRNA molecule ...

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.