Miscommunication among stem cells may trigger cancerous mutations

human stem cells

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Simply put, cancer is caused by mutations to genes within a cell that lead to abnormal cell growth. Finding out what causes that genetic mutation has been the holy grail of medical science for decades. Researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology believe they may have found one of the reasons and it all has to do with how stem cells talk to each other.

The landmark studies by Texas A&M researchers Fen Wang and Wallace McKeehan appear in the Journal of Biological Chemistry . Wang and McKeehan studied a family of proteins that communicate between cells called fibroblast growth factor (FGF). This new research shows that errors in the way FGF is transmitted and received by cells can activate previously dormant stem cells in an organ, which can cause cancer.

Wang is a professor at the Institute of Bioscience and Technology and director of the Texas A&M Center for Cancer and Stem Cell Biology. McKeehan is a Distinguished Professor at the Institute of Bioscience and Technology and at the Center for Cancer and Stem Cell Biology.

“For decades, (FSF) has been overlooked by big pharmaceutical companies because its role in cells is so complex. Now that we are starting to understand it, everyone is rushing to pay attention to the new star,” Wang said.

Nearly every cell in the body expresses the FGF protein, but there are 22 different types, so researchers have struggled to understand their role in cell communication. Until recently it has been a mystery as to how one of the 22 different types of FGF were sent out by cell expressers and taken in by cell receivers.

In their studies released in July, the team traced the life cycle of multiple generations of cells to observe the normal pathways of FGF and what happens when a miscommunication occurs.

“This research is instrumental in establishing the way FGF is normally communicated in cells,” Wang said. “Before we can know what’s abnormal, we must first establish what is normal. It is particularly important to understand how FGF works in normal and cancerous stem cells.”

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