Mutations of Cancer ‘Stem Cells’ Tracked For The First Time

Cancer stem cells in myelodysplastic syndrome: Fluorescence image of MDS stem cells in which orange shows an area of chromosome 5 has been lost from the cell. Credit: Petter Woll/Oxford University

A study involving a collaboration of British and Swedish researchers has managed to track the genetic mutations that convert healthy cells into cancerous ones. These results are the first to indicate the existence of cancer “stem cells” and could eventually offer other avenues of treatment. The study was led by Sten Eirik Jacobsen of the Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford and the results were published in the journal Cancer Cell.

There has been considerable debate among cellular biologists about the existence of cancer stem cells (CSCs), which are mutated cells that continue to produce more diseased cells just like it. Though there have been previous attempts to show their existence, the genetic equipment and tests used for identification were not reliable enough to definitively prove their existence. 

The common analogy for CSCs is that of tending a garden. When getting rid of weeds, it is not enough just to pull out the stems and leaves. If the root remains in the soil, the weed will return. With cancer, eliminating most of the cells might reduce the size of the tumor, but without getting rid of the stem cells most responsible for disease propagation, it will just return.

The participants of the study all of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which can progress into acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Malignant cells were extracted from their bone marrow and monitored as they grew over time. The team was able to identify a very small group of cells that were the first to mutate and pass those mutations along, encouraging mutations and tumor growth. These cells were basically at the top of the hierarchy for stem cells. 

“This is conclusive evidence for the existence of cancer stem cells in myelodysplastic syndromes,” lead author Petter Woll said in a press release. “We have identified a subset of cancer cells, shown that these rare cells are invariably the cells in which the cancer originates, and also are the only cancer-propagating cells in the patients. It is a vitally important step because it suggests that if you want to cure patients, you would need to target and remove these cells at the root of the cancer -- but that would be sufficient, that would do it.”

The results of this study are promising as research moves forward, but it is still a long way off from doctors targeting these cells in clinical treatments for MDS. Now that researchers know how to identify these cells, they can begin to understand how they function. Information gathered in those future studies will be applied to pushes for drug discovery, before taking the steps toward FDA approval for clinical use.

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