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New Breast Cancer Findings Explain How Cancer Spreads

Two types of stem cells are necessary for metastasis (January 14)

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.

“The lethal part of cancer is its metastasis, so understanding how metastasis occurs is critical,” says senior author Max S. Wicha, MD, director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We have evidence that cancer stem cells are responsible for metastasis — they are the seeds that mediate cancer’s spread. Now we’ve discovered how the stem cells do this.”

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 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.

Source: University of Michigan; January 14, 2014.

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