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Solving the Stem Cell and Cancer Dilemma

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 10 Mar 2013 | comments*Discuss
 
Cancer Dilemma Stem Cells Information

Stem cells have the potential to treat a vast number of debilitating diseases in Britain but conversely and surprisingly to many people, they also have the potential to trigger the growth of cancers. While we have known for some time that there is a link between stem cells and cancer growth, two groups have more recently shown a worrying dilemma – that stem cells do indeed trigger cancers. Not only that, but the two groups are independent of one another, further strengthening the research results and the important information produced from the studies. Fortunately, the groups offer possible ways to reduce the risk and effect of uncontrolled growth from stem cells, thereby providing a realistic way to handle this dilemma.

Understanding The Link Between Stem Cells And Cancer

One of the useful ways to investigate cancer is to look at those who suffer from cancer and those who are healthy. After the two groups did a comparison of gene activity in the stem cells from both healthy and cancerous tissue, they discovered that the stem cells in cancerous tissue were essentially 'frozen' into a state whereby they continued to multiply as primitive stem cells. They should, however, have matured into specific cells to form breast tissue, for instance. If you think about normal stem cell development, one important aspect is to suppress genes that can later be switched on to develop into specific kinds of cells. If the cell is normal, this gene suppression can be reversed. If the cell is abnormal – as in the case of cancer cells – these vital genes change due to a bodily process known as DNA methylation. When this occurs, a person would be more likely to develop cancer due to the permanent and irreversible suppression of that person's genes.

If you are wondering just how this change occurs, the answer relates to genes yet again. There is a gene group called polycomb genes. The change seems to happen when these polycomb genes are deactivated. In a person who has cancer, these polycomb genes are far more likely to be switched off by this methylation process. It is when they are in this particular state that they divide more than is normal and healthy, which leaves more time for mutations to occur as they continue dividing. In turn, these mutations become cancerous.

Solving The Issue of Cancer And Stem Cells

Ultimately, there are ways to address this dilemma and deal with the link between cancer and stem cells. One suggestion is to screen cells for characteristic signs of methylation patterns. In this way, the cells that are dangerous can be identified and addressed, which would also allow medical professionals to provide an earlier diagnosis of cancer.

By identifying the factors that can trigger abnormal DNA methylation in stem cells, researchers can ideally find ways to stop cancer from occurring as they learn new information in stem cell research. If all goes well, the future may solve this dilemma, as it holds the key to cancer prevention through the use of a very basic blood test.

The stem cell research teams will next be investigating DNA methylation patterns in the white blood cells and using this identification of cells to make a more accurate prediction of breast and ovarian cancer. Researchers also plan to look at how conditions that make a person more susceptible to cancer can contribute to the DNA methylation patterns. Hopefully, this difficult aspect of stem cells and cancer can be addressed through early detection and prevention. Although it is upsetting news that a therapy such as stem cells – with so much positive potential – also has a dark side, it is still fortunate that here in Britain, we may soon find an accurate way to detect and prevent any resulting cancer.

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