Stem Cells Lurk in Tumors and Can Resist Treatment


Regenerative medicine seeks to train stem cells to transform into nearly any kind of cell type. Unfortunately, this ability that makes stem cells so useful also is cause for concern in cancer treatments. Malignant tumors contain resident stem cells, which prompts worries among cancer experts that the cells’ transformative powers help cancers escape treatment.

Data from new research shows that the threat posed by cancer stem cells is more prevalent than previously thought. Until now, stem cells had been identified only in aggressive, fast-growing tumors. However, a mouse study at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has revealed that slow-growing tumors also have treatment-resistant stem cells.

Brain tumor stem cells (orange) in mice express a stem cell marker (green). Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are studying how cancer stem cells make tumors harder to kill and are looking for ways to eradicate these treatment-resistant cells. Credit: Yi-Hsien Chen
Brain tumor stem cells (orange) in mice express a stem cell marker (green). Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are studying how cancer stem cells make tumors harder to kill and are looking for ways to eradicate these treatment-resistant cells. Credit: Yi-Hsien Chen

In mice, low-grade brain cancer stem cells were less sensitive to anticancer drugs. When compared to healthy stem cells, tumor-based stem cells from brain tumors, revealed the reasons behind their resistance to treatments, which points to new therapeutic strategies.

“At the very least, we’re going to have to use different drugs and different, likely higher dosages to make sure we kill these tumor stem cells,” said senior author David H. Gutmann, MD, PhD, the Donald O. Schnuck Family Professor of Neurology.  Their data were published in the March 12 edition of Cell Reports.

First author Yi-Hsien Chen, who is a senior postdoctoral research associate in Gutmann’s laboratory, used a mouse model of neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), which forms low-grade brain tumors, to identify cancer stem cells and demonstrate that they could form tumors when transplanted into normal, cancer-free mice.

Neurofibromatosis type I is caused by mutations in the NF1 genes, and such mutations affect about 1 in every 2,500 babies. Neurofibromatosis type I can cause an array of physical problems, including brain tumors, impaired vision, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, heart defects and bone deformities.

In children with NF1 mutations, the most common brain tumor is optic gliomas. Treatment for NF1-related optic gliomas usually includes drugs that inhibit a cell growth pathway originally identified by Gutmann. In laboratory tests conducted as part of the new research, it took 10 times the dosage of these drugs to kill the low-grade cancer stem cells.

Compared with healthy stem cells from the brain, cancer stem cells made multiple copies of a protein called Abcg1 that helps those cells survive stress.

“This protein blocks a signal from inside the cells that should make them more vulnerable to treatment,” Gutmann explained. “If we can identify a drug that disables this protein, it would make some cancer stem cells easier to kill.”

Even though these laboratory mice were bred to model NF1 optic gliomas, Gutmann and others said that their findings could be applied more broadly to other brain tumors.

“Because stem cells haven’t differentiated into specialized cells, they can easily activate genes to turn on new developmental programs that allow the cells to survive cancer treatments,” said Gutmann, who directs the Washington University Neurofibromatosis Center. “Based on these new findings, we will have to develop additional strategies to keep these tumors from evading our best treatments.”

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mburatov

Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).