Their survival might explain why tumors frequently recur or spread after treatment. Increasingly, researchers view the challenge of getting rid of these bad seeds as the key to treating cancer far more effectively. However, because they are extremely rare, even in large tumors, studying them has been difficult.
Now, researchers have devised a way to generate large numbers of human breast cancer stem cells in mice and have discovered a genetic switch that regulates critical properties of the cells. The regulator, which belongs to a class of molecules called microRNAs (microRNAs), pushes the stem cells to become more differentiated and less tumorigenic through its ability to switch off particular genes.
“People know that microRNAs are important regulators of cell differentiation, but nobody has shown that they regulate the critical properties of cancer stem cells, or any kind of stem cells,” says Judy Lieberman, an investigator at the Immune Disease Institute and Harvard Medical School professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston. Lieberman and Erwei Song, a former postdoc in her lab now working as a breast cancer surgeon at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, are the senior investigators on the work, which appears in the Dec. 14 issue of Cell.
By showing that microRNAs can rein in tumor stem cells, the work suggests a novel way to target these cells to treat cancer with therapeutic RNAs, a promising new class of medicine under development for many diseases.
In the study, Song and first author Fengyan Yu started working in China to isolate breast cancer stem cells from freshly removed tumors. Because cancer stem cells resist chemotherapy, the researchers predicted that breast tumors from women who had received such treatment before surgery might be enriched with stem-like cells, and their experiments confirmed this idea. In tumors from untreated women, less than 1 in 250 cells had the cell surface markers and growth characteristics of stem cells; in treated tumors, the number rose to 1 in 17.
The finding gave Song and Yu the idea of trying to generate larger quantities of tumor stem cells by growing human breast cancer cells in immunosuppressed mice dosed with a chemotherapeutic agent. After three months of such a regimen, nearly 75 percent of the cells in the retrieved tumors displayed the properties of stem cells: they had the expected cell surface markers, were highly tumorigenic and metastatic in mice, were relatively drug resistant, and could be induced to differentiate into multiple kinds of breast tissue cells.
With a ready supply of cancer stem cells, the researchers were able to measure levels of microRNAs, small gene regulators that are known to influence a gene’s ability to create proteins important for cell growth and differentiation. They found that cancer stem cells contained low amounts of several microRNAs compared to more mature tumor cells or stem cells that had differentiated in culture.
They zeroed in on a tumor-supressing microRNA called let-7. When the team activated let-7 in the stem cells, they lost their ability to self-renew and began to differentiate. The cells also became less able to form tumors in mice or to metastasize. Further studies showed that let-7 did this by switching off two cancer-related genes: the oncogene Ras, and HMG2A, which when switched off caused the cells to differentiate.
If this finding applies to other tumor types, let-7 may offer a unique opportunity to attack tumor stem cells using therapeutic RNA. Delivery of the let-7 RNA to tumors could potentially deplete stem cells by pushing them down the path of differentiation. Using small RNAs to treat disease is a topic Lieberman is quite familiar with—in 2003, her lab was the first to show therapeutic RNAs could work in an animal model of liver disease, and their work has since focused on devising methods for targeting RNAs to all kinds of cells. Yu, now a visiting student in the Lieberman lab, is looking at ways to deliver the let-7 RNA mimics to stem cells.
“One of the fundamental problems of all the therapies that we have is that they are not doing anything to these cells,” Lieberman says. “If those turn out to be the cells that go on and form metastases and are resistant to chemotherapy and are responsible for relapses, and if your therapy isn’t dealing with those cells and is, in fact, selecting for them, that is very worrisome.”
David Cameron | EurekAlert!
Cancer diagnosis: no more needles?
25.05.2018 | Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
Less is more? Gene switch for healthy aging found
25.05.2018 | Leibniz-Institut für Alternsforschung - Fritz-Lipmann-Institut e.V. (FLI)
The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.
Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...
A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.
The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...
At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.
At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...
There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?
At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
25.05.2018 | Event News
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering
25.05.2018 | Life Sciences