New Breast Cancer Stem Cell Findings Explain How Cancer Spreads

breast cancer tumor

Breast cancer stem cells exist in two different states and each state plays a role in how cancer spreads, according to an international collaboration of researchers. Their finding sheds new light on the process that makes cancer a deadly disease.

  • First, on the outside of the tumor, a type of stem cell exists in a state called the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) state. These stem cells appear dormant but are very invasive and able to get into the bloodstream, where they travel (metastasize) to distant parts of the body.
  • Once there, the stem cells transition to a second state that displays the opposite characteristics, called the mesenchymal-epithelial transition state (MET). These cells are capable of growing and making copies of themselves, producing new tumors.

“You need both forms of cancer stem cells to metastasize and grow in distant organs. If the stem cell is locked in one or the other state, it can’t form a metastasis,” Wicha says.

The findings, which are published in the January 2013 issue of Stem Cell Reports, raise a number of questions about how to treat or prevent metastatic breast cancer. Researchers must now understand whether new therapies must attack both forms of the stem cell to be successful. Different pathways regulate each type of stem cell, which suggests that effective therapies must be able to target multiple pathways.

In addition, current tests that look at tumor cells circulating in the blood to help determine whether the cancer is spreading do not appear to capture the EMT stem cells, which are the cancer cells that travel through the blood. U-M researchers are working with colleagues from the U-M College of Engineering to develop new tools to isolate the EMT stem cells from the blood of cancer patients.

“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,” Wicha says. The study looked specifically at breast cancer stem cells but the researchers believe the findings likely have implications for other cancer types as well.

I’m Dr. Michael Hunter.

The small print: The material presented herein is informational only, and is not designed to provide specific guidance for an individual. Please check with a valued health care provider with any questions or concerns. As for me, I am a Harvard- , Yale- and UPenn-educated radiation oncologist, and I practice in the Seattle, WA (USA) area. I feel genuinely privileged to be able to share with you. If you enjoyed today’s offering, please consider clicking the follow button at the bottom of this page.

Available now: Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Brain Glioma in 60 Minutes. Both can be found at the Apple Ibooks store. Coming Soon for iPad:  Understand Breast Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minute; Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Brain Glioma in 60 Minutes. Thank you.

Reference: Suling Liu, Yang Cong, Dong Wang, Yu Sun, Lu Deng, Yajing Liu, Rachel Martin-Trevino, Li Shang, Sean P. McDermott, Melissa D. Landis, Suhyung Hong, April Adams, Rosemarie D’Angelo, Christophe Ginestier, Emmanuelle Charafe-Jauffret, Shawn G. Clouthier, Daniel Birnbaum, Stephen T. Wong, Ming Zhan, Jenny C. Chang, Max S. Wicha. Breast Cancer Stem Cells Transition between Epithelial and Mesenchymal States Reflective of their Normal CounterpartsStem Cell Reports, 2013; DOI:10.1016/j.stemcr.2013.11.009

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