Scientists Get Closer to the Stem Cells That May Drive Cancers

THURSDAY, May 15, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Although the very concept of cancer stem cells has been controversial, new research provides proof that these distinct types of cells exist in humans.

Using genetic tracking, researchers found that a gene mutation tied to cancer's development can be traced back to cancer stem cells. These cells are at the root of cancer and responsible for supporting the growth and progression of the disease, the scientists report.

Cancer stem cells are able to replenish themselves and produce other types of cancer cells, just as healthy cells produce other normal cells, the study's British and European authors explained.

"It's like having dandelions in your lawn. You can pull out as many as you want, but if you don't get the roots they'll come back," study first author Dr. Petter Woll, of the MRC Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford, said in a university news release.

The researchers, led by a team of scientists at Oxford and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, said their findings could have significant implications for cancer treatment. They explained that by targeting cancer stem cells, doctors could not only get rid of a patient's cancer but also prevent any remaining cancer cells from sustaining the disease.

The study, published May 15 in Cancer Cell, involved 15 patients diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a type of cancer that often develops into acute myeloid leukemia, a form of blood cancer.

The researchers examined the cancer cells in the patients' bone marrow. Four of the patients were also monitored over time. One patient was followed for two years. Two patients were followed for 30 months and another patient was monitored for 10 years.

According to the researchers, in prior studies citing the existence of cancer stem cells, the lab tests that were used to identify these cells were considered by many to be unreliable.

However, "In our studies we avoided the problem of unreliable lab tests by tracking the origin and development of cancer-driving mutations in MDS patients," explained study leader Sten Eirik Jacobsen, of Oxford's MRC Molecular Haematology Unit and the Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine.

According to the research, a distinct group of MDS cells had all the characteristics of cancer stem cells, and only these particular cancer cells appeared able to cause tumor spread.

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Scientists Get Closer to the Stem Cells That May Drive Cancers

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