Rare stem cell may be the root of all metastatic cancers

Researchers have made a new discovery about cancer cell metastasis that could completely change treatment approaches in the battle against cancer.

Cancer stem cellsSebastian Tomus | Shutterstock

Professor Michael Lisanti from the University of Salford and colleagues have identified a rare rogue stem cell they are calling the “cell of origin” that could trigger the spread of cancer (metastasis).

It feels like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, and it crucially gives us a new window on cancer and how we might stop it.”

Michael Lisanti, Lead Author

As reported in the journal Frontiers in Oncology, after growing cell lines derived from breast tumors, the team found that the most dynamic of the cells were particularly energetic.

Interestingly, those cells also displayed signs of senescence, the process that causes ageing cells to “freeze” and stop proliferating. However, the energetic cells appeared to have “broken out” of this process and lost their senescence, says Lisanti.

The researchers say there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that metastasis is caused by cancer stem cells that are fuelled by mitochondria. The team believes these “mother” cancer cells could use antioxidants and energy from mitochondria to redirect their fate.

"Scientists talk about cancer being caused by dying cells coming back to life, so-called 'zombie-cells,'” says Lisanti. "We now see it is more dramatic than that…. this origin cell breaks out of line and runs amok, multiplying malignant cells and creating a tumor."

However, most chemotherapy drugs are designed to target “bulk” cancer cells rather than these “root” stem cells; new therapies that specifically target these “tumor-initiating cells” are therefore needed to prevent the growth and spread of cancer.

Our new research may have discovered such a target,” said Lisanti and team. “Now that we have found them and we know how they behave, it should be relatively simple to find drugs to target cancer stem cells.”

The team adds that if they focus on energetic stem cells, they may be able to home in on the target directly and by doing so, revolutionize treatment and turn cancer into a manageable disease like diabetes.

We believe that we have arrived at the start of a new, more fruitful, road in cancer therapy. As a consequence, “big pharma” drug screening should actually focus on cancer stem cells and their relevant targets.”

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally has a Bachelor's Degree in Biomedical Sciences (B.Sc.). She is a specialist in reviewing and summarising the latest findings across all areas of medicine covered in major, high-impact, world-leading international medical journals, international press conferences and bulletins from governmental agencies and regulatory bodies. At News-Medical, Sally generates daily news features, life science articles and interview coverage.


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  1. Jess h Jess h Australia says:

    There is a great deal of research been going on into the different functions of stem cells, of which is useful to other diseases that are not life threatening, for instance ross river fever-virus. As an example, a relatively new treatment for Ross river virus which has long since been recognised as untreatable through medicine, now has the drug pentosan polysulfate sodium being trialled that seems to enhance stem cell activation through promotion of certain biological signals and blocking of others. New medical research is finding that diseases that were once considered by health professionals as “all in our heads” due to past inadequate scientific research, that were not able to be correlate and associate long term disease to past viral infection, due to no treatment or ‘cures’ available - obviously lacked relevant scientific research and these hidden research mysterious are now coming to light. Ross river virus is more recently being associated with development of muscular skeletal disease. Research trials have showed pentosan polysulfate can improve long term recovery outcomes for people with ongoing rrv, by altering muscular skeletal disease - a disease that has been widely accepted by the government and medical association as being non-existent even though individuals who become infected with ross river virus develop long term muscular skeletal disease, which we call flare ups of symptoms that seem to be induced by a response by poor immune system homeostasis.

    Perhaps you could write a story about how different stem cells might help in the future and what types of diseases could benefit from stem cell oriented therapy.

    I know many people with fibromyalgia, Lyme disease and different types of mosquito virus infections would be greatly interested in reading coherent and well researched news on this matter.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.