William Lowry and his postdoctoral fellow Andrew White at UCLA’s Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research have discovered the means by which particular adult stem cells suppress their ability to trigger skin cancer during their dormant phase. A better understanding of this mechanism could provide the foundation to better cancer-prevention strategies.
This study was published online Dec. 15 in the journal Nature Cell Biology. William Lowry, Ph.D. is an associate professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science.
Hair follicle stem cells are those tissue-specific adult stem cells that generate the hair follicles. Unfortunately, they also are the cell population from which cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma, a common skin cancer, begins. However, these stem cells cycle between active periods, when they grow, and dormant periods, when they do not grow.
White and Lowry used transgenic mouse models for their work, and they inserted cancer-causing genes into these mice that were only expressed in their hair follicle stem cells. During the dormant phase, the hair follicle stem cells were not able to initiate skin cancer, but once they transitioned into their active period, they began growing cancer.
Dr. White explained it this way: “We found that this tumor suppression via adult stem cell quiescence was mediated by PTEN (phosphatase and tensin homolog), a gene important in regulating the cell’s response to signaling pathways. Therefore, stem cell quiescence is a novel form of tumor suppression in hair follicle stem cells, and PTEN must be present for the suppression to work.”
Retinoids are used to treat certain types of leukemias because they drive the cancer cells to differentiate and cease dividing. Likewise, understanding cancer suppression by inducing quiescence could, potentially, better inform preventative strategies for certain patients who are at higher risk for cancers. For example, organ transplant recipients are particularly susceptible to squamous cell carcinoma, as are those patients who are taking the drug vemurafenib (Zelboraf) for melanoma (another type of skin cancer). This study also might reveal parallels between squamous cell carcinoma and other cancers in which stem cells have a quiescent phase.