Thursday, November 23, 2006

Cancer and stem cells

Canadian and Italian scientists have just came with research that adds further strength to the idea that mutations to stem cells are the main driving force driving tumour growth and ultimately cancer. Stem cells are non differentiated cells that can replicate indefinitely. When a stem cell duplicates this can lead to two stems cells or to a stem cells and a differentiated cell. These differentiated cells can perform useful things such as become muscle cells, breast cells, epithelial cells, etc. As opposed to stem cells, these differentiated cells lose the capability of limitless replication. Every time a differentiated cell divides, the telomerase needed at the ends of the chromosomes gets shorter. Eventually there is not enough for replication and the cell undergoes apoptosis. That is one reason why many tissues have a pool of stem cells that keep producing differentiated while needed.

The researchers tried to find out how relevant stem cells are for cancer growth. They show than when performing animal experiments (much more convincing than in vitro), animals with injected colon stem cancer cells are more likely to develop cancer than those in which non-stem cancer cells are used.

It all sounds reasonable to me: one of the capabilities that tumour cells have to acquire for the tumour to become a cancer is limitless replicative potential. If you inject into an animal cells that already have that capability, that should make it easier for the cancer to appear. Also, it is known that some tumour cells, as they mutate, might revert to an undifferentiated state with stem-like behaviour. Therapies that specifically target stem-cell cancer cells should be the next step since stem cells amount to a small proportion of the cells in the body but seem to have such a great potential in cancer initiation.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Evolution on a chip

Via Nature research highlights I found an intersting article in PNAS about how a group of researchers in Princeton are studying evolution in silico...for real!

Normally, when theoretical biologists talk about biology in silico they are thinking of computer models of biology, but this time the in silico referes to silicon chips that have been used to create patched environments, each one representing a different microenvironment (the main difference between the patches being the availability of nutrients). In these patches they placed colonies of E. coli and let them grow. The bacteria were allowed to move from one patch to the next using narrow corridors.

Interestingly but maybe not surprisingly, the bacteria move towards more promising neighbouring patches and some times, adapt, genetically and physiologically to the environment. Asides from some interesting experiments, the guys have been kind enough to produce some mathematical model to study the evolution in silico as well as analysis of what is the evolution of bacterial density in a patch as nutrient availability gets depleted and competition gets tougher.

It is really interesting stuff but it seems that they need to complicate a little bit more the patches in order to get more adaptation to the environment and less motility to the greener grass.