According to the American Cancer Society, more than 230’000 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and more than 40’000 women will die from the disease. Because of it’s prevalence, a lot of research is focused at understanding the origins of this form of cancer, as well as improving diagnosis and treatment methods.
The University of Michigan reports that new research into breast cancer has identified breast cancer stem cells that exist in two different states and play a role in how the cancer spreads.
Understanding how breast cancer spreads is one of the best ways for finding new types of treatment as limiting the spread means other parts of the body can be kept safe from harm. One of the authors of the research, Max S. Wicha M.D, says “The lethal part of cancer is its metastasis so understanding how metastasis occurs is critical”.
There is evidence that the stem cells in question are responsible for metastasis, researchers refer to them as the “seeds” that allow the cancer to spread. If researchers can find a way to stop the cells functioning it may be possible to prevent breast cancer spreading.
The outside of tumors contain a type of stem cell that exists in the “epithelial-mesenchymal transition” (EMT) state. These stem cells can actually get into the blood from where they can travel throughout the body. As these stem cells arrive in other parts of the body, they transition to a second state known as “mesenchymal-epithelial transition” state (MET). In that state the stem cells can start growing and making copies of themselves, creating new tumors. That is how breast cancer is thought to spread.
If the stem cell remained locked in the first state (EMT), it would not be able to form tumors in other parts of the body as it couldn’t grow into a tumor. One of the potential research implications could be finding drugs which can lock these stem cells into this first state. Researchers are continuing to study both states of the stem cells to determine if one state or both need to be addressed to prevent metastasis.
Also, recent tests look at tumor cells circulating in the blood to help determine if the cancer that is spreading don’t capture the EMT stem cells. There are even attempts to isolate the stem cells from the blood, to filter them out and stop the cancer spreading.
As Dr Wicha says: “Now that we know we are looking at two different states of cancer stem cells, we can use markers that distinguish these states to get a better sense of where the cancer stem cells are and to determine the effectiveness of our treatments”
This study may have ramifications for other forms of cancer as well!