Pretty much everyone asks the same first question when they find out that somebody has cancer; is it malignant or benign? The latter tend to be able to be cut out and done with in a short amount of time. The former tends to spread throughout the body and generally wreak havoc.
And it can’t be stopped.
To date, research has yet to reveal exactly what it is about malignant cancerous cells that make them so good at breaking off from the whole and creating entirely new tumors from single cells. One of the reasons for this knowledge gab is that these metastatic cells are quite rare, difficult to differentiate, difficult to culture and extremely difficult to kill.
Previous research on these little buggers has revealed that they might have a lot in common with standard stem cells. Ning Wang, a professor of mechanical science and engineering at the University of Illinois, previously demonstrated that a soft gel-like medium grows stem cell cultures much better than traditional hard plates. Putting two and two together, he wondered if perhaps the same growth medium might create colonies of metastatic cancer cells.
Apparently, it does.
In a recent paper published in Nature Materials, Wang and his team of researches show that cancer cells grown in 3-D soft fibrin are much more efficient at causing tumors in mice than cells prepared in the traditional manner. While it typically takes an injection of 10,000 cells into mice to cause tumors, these cells required a mere 10. What’s more, the technique cultured the same metastatic cells for a number of different types of cancer.
And as everyone knows, the first step to solving a problem is being able to study it.
Already, the researchers have found that the tumor-repopulating cells express a self-renewal gene called Sox2, which is usually only expressed in stem cells and not in traditionally prepared cancer cells. When the researchers blocked the Sox2 gene, the cells started to differentiate, becoming traditional tissue-specific cancer cells.
Now the search is on to try to discover just what makes these tumor-seeding cells so good at surviving in distant organs and so efficient at seeding new tumors.