Squamous cell cancers can originate from hair follicle stem cells, finds study

Published on April 20, 2011 at 5:29 AM · No Comments

Squamous cell cancers, which can occur in multiple organs in the body, can originate from hair follicle stem cells, a finding that could result in new strategies to treat and potentially prevent the disease, according to a study by researchers with UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA.

Researchers also found that the progeny of those cells, although just a few divisions away from the mother hair follicle stem cells, were not capable of forming squamous cell cancers. Further studying why those progeny, called transit amplifying cells, can't develop cancer could provide vital clues to how squamous cell cancers originate, said William Lowry, an assistant professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology in Life Sciences and senior author of the study.

The study, conducted in mouse models, appears the week of April 18 in the early online edition in the peer-reviewed journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

It had been suggested in the literature that squamous cell cancers could arise from the hair follicle, but it was not clear what cell type within the follicle was responsible. This is the first time two distinct cell types in the skin have been compared and contrasted for their ability to develop squamous cell cancers, said Lowry, who is a Jonsson Cancer Center and Broad Stem Cell Research Center scientist.

"It was surprising that the progeny of these stem cells, which are developmentally more restricted, could not develop cancers when the mother stem cells could," said Lowry. "There is something fundamentally different between the two, and it's important that we figure out why one type of cell was able to develop cancer and the other was not. The insights we gain will tell us how these cancers arise in the first place, and could provide us with a wealth of novel targets we could go after to prevent the cancer before it starts."

A type of non-melanoma skin cancer, these cancers form in squamous cells, thin, flat cells found on the surface of the skin, the lining of the hollow organs of the body and the passages of the respiratory and digestive tracts. Squamous cell cancers occur in the skin, lips, mouth, esophagus, bladder, prostate, lungs, vagina, anus and cervix. Despite the common name, these cancers are unique malignancies with significant differences in manifestation and prognosis.

In this study, Lowry and his team sought to determine which cells of the epidermis, or skin, could give rise to squamous cell cancer. They wanted to find out if skin stem cells had properties than made them more prone to develop tumors than non-stem cells, said Andrew White, a post-doctoral fellow in Lowry's lab and first author of the study.

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