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Stem cells provide clues to cancer spread

Scientists have made a breakthrough in understanding how cancers spread in what could lead to new ways of beating the disease.

The University of Manchester study used embryonic stem (ES) cells to investigate how some tumours are able to migrate to other parts of the body, which makes the treatment of cancer much more difficult.

Dr Chris Ward, in the Universitys Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, studied a crucial change that makes cancer cells able to start moving and spread into other tissues.

Normal cells, as well as early cancer cells, are called epithelial cells because they bind tightly to each other forming stable layers of tissue. However, as a tumour becomes more advanced, some of the cells change to become mesenchymal.

Mesenchymal cells do not bind to each other, forming more disorganised tissues in which the cells can move around. Since this crucial change known as the epithelial-mesenchymal transition, was first observed in the early embryo, Dr Ward theorised that embryonic stem cells might undergo a similar process.

Dr Ward, whose findings are published in the journal Molecular Biology of the Cell, said: "We have shown that ES cells spontaneously change in a manner that is remarkably similar to the epithelial-mesenchymal transition. They lose the proteins that cells use to bind to each other and have other protein alterations that are characteristic of spreading cancer cells.

"Since ES cells can be grown in the laboratory where they keep the characteristics of the cells in the early embryo they can be studied in detail. By studying these ES cells we have already identified a novel component of this transition process. We expect the use of ES cells will lead to the identification of other unknown factors involved in cancer cell spread, hopefully leading to new avenues for cancer therapy."

Previously, it has been quite difficult to study this crucial transition in cancer cells a
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Contact: Aeron Haworth
aeron.haworth@manchester.ac.uk
44-161-275-8383
University of Manchester
22-May-2007


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