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Scientists Discover Driving Force Behind Prostate Cancer

Stem cells show cancer-inducing DNA re-alignment (Mar. 27)

Scientists at the University of York in the U.K. report that they have identified the driving force behind the development of prostate cancer.

Their research, published in Nature Communications, has uncovered the existence of a cancer-inducing DNA re-alignment in stem cells taken from human prostate cancers. The discovery may open the way to the development of drugs that target these cells, leading to more effective therapies that work against the root cause of the disease.

Professor Norman Maitland and his colleagues were the first to isolate prostate cancer stem cells in 2005. While other cancer cells can be killed by current therapies, stem cells are able to evade the effects of drug treatment, resulting in cancer recurrence. The researchers have since been exploring the molecular properties that allow these cells to spread, to survive, and to resist aggressive treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy.

“This discovery marks a fundamental shift in our understanding of how solid cancers start,” Maitland said. “It is believed that ‘root’ cancer cells arise from healthy stem cells going wrong — for example, certain controls can be turned off, which allows the cells to keep growing and invade surrounding tissue.

“In blood cancers, such as leukemia, DNA is rearranged during an event known as chromosomal translocation, which results in a mutant protein that drives cancer progression. Although similar rearrangements have recently been discovered in solid cancers, until now they have not been considered as stem-cell functions. Our work has challenged this idea.”

Maitland’s team has found these genetic accidents in prostate cancer stem cells and has shown that they result in the inappropriate activation of a specific cancer-associated gene (ERG) within the cells. It is believed that this activation triggers the stem cells to renew more often.

Maitland continued: “The cells become ‘selfish’ by surviving outside normal controls that exist in the prostate and thrive at the expense of their neighbors, ensuring that the genetic accident becomes permanent and passed from generation to generation. This process appears to be essential for the initiation of prostate cancer.”

Source: University of York; March 27, 2013.

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