by Monya Baker

Two papers point to how cancer cells go astray

A growing body of research in breast cancer, leukaemia and brain cancer shows that cancer stem cells co-opt the pathways of regular stem cells to maintain themselves and resist treatments. Two recent studies in acute myeloid leukaemia have used very different techniques that each point to the likelihood of uncovering strategies to target cancer stem cells while sparing healthy stem cells.

jpan massagueResearchers have uncovered the first genetic clues that suggest how invasive breast cancer cells pry their way into the tightly protected interior of the brain, where they can grow into new and lethal tumors. Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher Joan Massagué and colleagues at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have identified three genes that work together to fuel the spread of breast cancer to the brain.

Their studies indicate that those renegade cancer cells use some of the same strategies that other breast cancer cells rely on to invade the lungs – but also need more specialized molecular tools to infiltrate the brain. The study is reported in an advance online publication on May 6, 2009, in the journal Nature.

by Monya Baker

Inhibitors of the protein survivin might lower tumour risk

The ability of embryonic stem cells to form noncancerous tumours called teratomas is one of their defining traits. It is also a frightening one, particularly for those who hope to develop therapies from the cells. New research from Nissim Benvenisty and colleagues at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem helps to explain why human embryonic stem cells can form teratomas and may provide a way to keep teratomas in check1.

Researchers say cells were poorly characterized prior to transplantation

Foetal stem cells transplanted to a boy with a hereditary neurodegenerative disease have grown into noncancerous tumours in his brain and spinal cord. Though the poorly documented procedure did not occur as part of a clinical trial, it marks the first reported case of a brain tumour resulting from stem cell transplantation and highlights potential risks of cell-based therapies.

john dickby Monya Baker

The University of Toronto scientist calls for more controversy

John Dick identified the first cancer stem cell, in leukaemia. The widely used xenotransplantation assay that he developed can confirm the identity of prospective haematopoietic stem cells by demonstrating their ability to re-establish a human blood system in the mouse. He is a professor at the University of Toronto and its affiliated Princess Margaret Hospital and Director of the Program in Cancer Stem Cells at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. 

vivan g. cheungHoward Hughes Medical Institute researchers have identified a group of genes that influence a person’s sensitivity to radiation. The findings are a step toward a long-term goal of developing new tests that would help physicians determine the optimal dosage of radiation for cancer treatment based on a person’s genetic profile.

“This study identifies a set of genetic variants that influence how a cell responds to radiation-induced damage,” said Vivian G. Cheung, senior author of a report published on April 6, 2009, in the journal Nature.

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