Rogue Gene ‘Invades Stem Cells to Spark Cancer’

A gene present in many forms of cancer is able to spark the disease by invading stem cells and encouraging abnormal growth, according to a new study.

Scientists took stem cells from an adult human mouth and injected them with higher than normal levels of the FOXM1 gene, which triggered a type of cell growth often seen in early-stage cancer cases.

Environmental and behavioral factors, such as exposure to ultraviolet rays and smoking, have been found to lead to increased levels of FOXM1.

The gene “exploits the inherent self-renewal property of stem cells,” said the study by Muy-Teck Teh at the Institute of Dentistry at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

“By overexpressing FOXM1 in stem cells we found that it produces a condition similar to a precancerous hyperplasia,” Teh said.

The researchers used a 3D tissue culture model system to simulate human tissue growth in the laboratory without experimenting on actual humans, said the study which appears in the journal Cancer Research.

“What we found was that with the overexpression of FOXM1 in the stem cells we were able to increase the thickness of the tissue as compared to cells that were not overexpressing FOXM1,” Teh said.

Previous studies using mice also showed that the same process triggered precancerous growths, Teh said.

“This is the first study using human cells to show it can induce hyperplasia,” Teh said.

Scientists have known since 2002 that the FOXM1 gene was linked to cancer, after it was found present in skin cancer. Subsequent studies identified it to be an “upregulator,” or a sort of encouraging agent in all types of human cancer.

“What the role of this gene was in human cancer was not quite clear,” Teh said. “Why was it present in so many types of human cancer? These findings illustrate for the first time how the gene works.”

No diagnostic tests currently exist to examine a person’s level of FOXM1, but researchers hope that by understanding how the gene works in cancer creation they can begin to identify drugs to stop the disease at its earliest stages.

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