Scientists may now know exactly where cancer cells begin

21 Jan 2016

Scientists in the US think they have pinpointed the exact place that cancer cells originate, narrowing down to a weird ‘in-between’ stage of cell development.

Using a fruit fly’s eye as a reference, the precise spot in which cells turn cancerous may have been pinpointed to a remarkable degree by scientists in Northwestern University in Illinois.

By looking at cell behaviour,  they noted a specific protein called Yan that acted particularly oddly while cells switched from a primitive stem-like state to a more specialised state.

It is during this “fluctuating” period that cells transition, with Yan’s levels of fluctuation (called ‘noise’) determining whether or not the cell switches and moves forward. When the cell does advance, a receptor called EGFR stops Yan’s erratic influence – if the former’s signal is ignored, the cell remains “in an uncontrolled state”.

A new target

This noisy fluctuation, and it’s subsequent ending, is the point at which the researchers think cancerous cells develop, offering an acute target for further research in the future.

“This mad fluctuation, or noise, happens at the time of cell transition,” said Carthew, professor of molecular biosciences in Northwestern.

“For the first time, we see there is a brief time period as the developing cell goes from point A to point B. The noise is a state of ‘in between’ and is important for cells to switch to a more specialised state. This limbo might be where normal cells take a cancerous path.”

Cancer research

The fruit fly’s eye is an intricate pattern of many different specialised cells, and scientists use it as a workhorse to study what goes wrong in human cancer. Image via Northwestern University

Shared infrastructure

A fruit fly was used as an investigatory environment because flies share an awful lot of “infrastructure” with humans, according to Carthew.

“We can use fruit fly genetics to understand how humans work and how things go wrong in cancer and other diseases.”

The noisy Yan protein in flies is called Tel-1 in humans, which instructs cells to turn into white blood cells. The gene that produces the protein, oncogene Tel-1, is frequently mutated in leukemia.

The EGFR protein that turns off the noise in flies is called Her-2 in humans. Her-2 is an oncogene that plays an important role in human breast cancer.

“Studying the dynamics of molecules regulating fly-eye patterning can inform us about human disease,” said Nicolás Peláez, one of the authors of the study.

“Using model organisms such as fruit flies will help us understand quantitatively the basic biological principles governing differentiation in complex animals.”

Main cancer cell image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic