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January 29, 2016

Single Cell Lights Beacon to Cancer Origins

  • For the first time scientists are able to visualize the origin of cancer cells and track their progression through tumorigenesis. [Dr. Leonard Zon, Boston Children's Hospital].

     

  • Conundrums exist in every facet of our daily lives and are often dismissed as either general annoyances or fleeting curiosities. Yet for scientists, solving common scientific enigmas can often lead to a watershed moment within their respective discipline.  For instance, researchers have been perplexed for decades as to why the vast number of cells that have cancer genes never morph into cancerous tumors.

    Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital have published results from a new study, which visualized the origins of cancer from the first affected cell and watched its spread within a live animal. The research team is hopeful that their findings could change the way scientists understand melanoma and other cancers, as well as open doors to new therapeutic interventions.        

    "An important mystery has been why some cells in the body already have mutations seen in cancer, but do not yet fully behave like the cancer," stated lead author Charles Kaufman, M.D., Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Leonard Zon, M.D. at Boston Children's Hospital. "We found that the beginning of cancer occurs after activation of an oncogene or loss of a tumor suppressor, and involves a change that takes a single cell back to a stem cell state."

    The findings from this study were published online today in Science through an article entitled “A zebrafish melanoma model reveals emergence of neural crest identity during melanoma initiation.”

    The Boston researchers tracked the development of melanoma in live zebrafish that had been genetically engineered to have the human cancer mutation BRAFV600E—found in most benign moles—and the p53 tumor suppressor gene removed. Moreover, the fish contained a GFP-crestin gene that would light up if it was turned on, a beacon indicating activation of a genetic program characteristic of stem cells. Typically this program is turned off after embryonic development. Occasionally, however, crestin and other genes in the program turn back on in individual cells.

    "Every so often we would see a green spot on a fish," noted Dr. Zon, who is the director of the Stem Cell Research Program at Boston Children's, member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and senior author on the current study. "When we followed them, they became tumors 100 percent of the time."

    When Dr. Zon and his colleagues looked to see what was different in these early cancer cells, they found that crestin and the other activated genes are the same ones turned on during zebrafish embryonic development, specifically in the stem cells that give rise to the pigment cells known as melanocytes within a structure called the neural crest.

    "What's cool about this group of genes is that they also get turned on in human melanoma,” Dr. Zon said. "It's a change in cell fate, back to neural crest status."

    While trying to track these glowing cells in live fish was exceedingly difficult, Dr. Kaufman managed to isolate and characterize 30 fish with a small green glowing cluster of cells. Interestingly, in all 30 cases, the clusters grew into melanomas. In two fish, Dr. Kaufman was able to see a single green-glowing cell and watch it divide to ultimately become a tumor mass.

    "It's estimated that only one in tens or hundreds of millions of cells in a mole eventually become a melanoma," explained Dr. Kaufman. "Because we can also efficiently breed many fish, we can look for these very rare events. The rarity is very similar in both humans and fish, which suggests that the underlying process of melanoma formation is probably much the same in humans."

    The investigators are optimistic that the results from their study could lead to new genetic tests for suspicious moles to see whether the cells are behaving like neural crest cells, indicating that the stem-cell program has been turned on. Additionally, the scientists are investigating the regulatory elements that turn on the genetic program, often called super-enhancers. These control elements have analogous epigenetic functions in zebrafish and human melanoma, potentially providing druggable targets to stop a mole from becoming cancerous.

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