Your body’s own stem cells could trigger alterations in cancer cells which facilitate their spreading around the body, say scientist from the Whitehead Institute, USA. They found that human breast cancer in mice have a higher chance of spreading if they are blended with bone marrow stem cells. Fortunately, say the scientists, it is perhaps feasible to reverse the process, undermining the deadliness of the cancer.

You can read about this study in the journal Nature.

When metastasis occurs it is much harder to treat the cancer. Metastasis is when the cancer invades other parts of the body and forms new tumors. In this study, the scientists intended to find out whether it was possible to stop this from happening – they wanted to find a means of isolating the cancer to one part of the body; stopping it from metastasizing (spreading, invading other parts).

The researchers have found an association with a specific type of stem cell, which encourages the breast cancer cells to spread to other parts of the body. They are found in the bone marrow, and are called Mesenchymal stem cells. These stem cells generally turn into cartilage, bone fat and muscle.

Previous studies had indicated that these stem cells generally migrated in huge numbers to where tumors were situated, meaning they were probably involved in the spread of the cancer. The researchers mixed these stem cells with human breast cancer cells in mice and found they spread to the lungs at seven times their normal rate.

The scientists believe the stem cells alter the cancer cells so that they metastasize. However, they add that as soon as they had spread, those cancer cells returned to their original genetic make-up. The bad news here is that as they revert back to their original genetic make up they are hard to identify, the good news, say the researchers, is that it is most likely they can find a way of blocking the whole process.

“Mesenchymal stem cells within tumour stroma promote breast cancer metastasis”
Antoine E. Karnoub, Ajeeta B. Dash, Annie P. Vo, Andrew Sullivan, Mary W. Brooks, George W. Bell, Andrea L. Richardson, Kornelia Polyak, Ross Tubo & Robert A. Weinberg.
Nature 449, 557-563; doi:10.1038/nature06188.
Click here to view abstract online

Written by: Christian Nordqvist