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!
Study shines light on brain cells that coordinate movement
26.06.2017 | University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine
New insight into a central biological dogma on ion transport
26.06.2017 | Aarhus University
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
26.06.2017 | Life Sciences
26.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
26.06.2017 | Information Technology