Why Are Some Cells More Cancer-Prone Than Others?
It’s a question that has been a source of research for many years- why do some areas of the body readily generate cancerous cells and yet others do so very rarely? As cells age and degrade they are replaced by new cells which are generated in the stem cells in that area. It is this generation of new cells that leads to the biological mutations that can lead to cancer. To try and find out more about why this process goes wrong in certain regions more than others, scientists in America have turned to the small intestine of the fruit fly (good old Drosophila!).
Research into tissue stem cells could prove vital in finding a functional cure for some of the most common forms of cancer. We already know that certain areas of the body are more prone than others, but we do not know why that is. And that’s the important bit. Without that piece of knowledge we can’t look at treatments that intercept, weaken or even eradicate the process whereby stem cells are generating new cells with genetic abnormalities. Instead we are left with trying to tackle fully-functional cancer.
The research was undertaken at the Carnegie Institute, by a team headed by Alexis Marianes and Allan Sprading. The tissue stem cells from the gut midsection were chosen due to their accessibility and the fact that most digestion takes place here so the area is highly specialized to get the most from the digestive process. In fact, some areas are hyper-specialized and designed to the uptake of not just lipids or proteins but also iron and potassium.
The fruit fly gut has 10 different major sub regions which occur in a specific order. Each area is specialized and all the cells within in and around it are specialized too. This may seem like an awful lot of specialization, but without it no living creature on this earth would be obtaining the nutrients it needs. It’s important to remember here, we don’t just need nutrients for survival, growth and basic body maintenance; without a plentiful supply of nutrients we simply wouldn’t have evolved.
The study showed that there were preferential areas of the gut that gave rise to tumours; so far, so good. Oncology research has known about this for years. The real breakthrough came when it was identified that those areas were specialized for the absorption of lipids. Lipids have been an intense source of cancer research in recent years. No one is saying that lipids give us cancer, but the fact remains that area of the body specialized for the absorption of lipids and areas of the body specialized for the storage of lipids are bringing about molecular changes. If this affect is being found in a fruit fly imagine that scaled up into an adult human, with our voracious consumption of lipids (including such suspect members of the family as hydrogenated fats and Trans Fatty Acids).
With this kind of research there is still a long, long way to go. But it’s a first step- a first step on the way to a new era of cancer treatments that don’t rely on beating the disease with chemical cocktails or intense radiation.
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Finally, I make no apologies for the beautiful photo of the Fruit Fly that features at the start of this article. He is supplied courtesy of en.wikipedia.org.