In a School of Dentistry lab on North University Avenue, researchers have discovered what could eventually change the way doctors treat cancer.
In a study published Tuesday in the online journal Nature Communications, Dentistry Prof. Russell Taichman and Research Associate Younghun Jung have deciphered the molecular messages that cause certain cancers to spread.
Taichman’s lab studies how cancer spreads to bone marrow as well as ways in which stem cells can be used to regenerate bone. The research is significant in the School of Dentistry because bone regeneration is often crucial in dental procedures.
Jung, who is involved in research in both areas, decided to join the two sets of experiments rather than perform the studies separately.
Both malignant and benign tumors emit distress signals to recruit healing cells, or very small embryonic-like stem cells. While studying the effect of VSEL stem cells in rehabilitating human bones inserted in mice, Jung decided to include a tumor in the experiment to see how the VSEL cells would interact. In the initial trial, Jung found the tumor contained a huge amount of the healing cells.
“I was ecstatic to find that they do, in fact, interact with each other,” Jung wrote in an e-mail interview. “As a scientist, I get excited just by coming up with new ideas and theories to test. But when the data seems to support these ideas, it is really something else.”
After almost three years of research, Taichman and Jung have been able to discover what draws the healing cells to a tumor. While a collaborator at the University of Louisville first identified VSEL cells, Taichman and Jung were the first to study them in tumors and pinpoint the role the cells play in the spread of cancer.
When a tumor develops, the tumor produces a protein that draws the VSEL stem cells inside. Then, the VSEL cells turn into a second type of cell known as cancer associated fibroblasts. Those cells produce a protein that makes cancer cells more aggressive, allowing them to spread to other parts of the body.
By understanding the ways in which stem cells interact with a tumor and cause cancer to spread, researchers can now study methods through which to block VSEL cells from interacting with a tumor. Additionally, high VSEL cell levels in a blood test could potentially serve as a diagnostic meter for detecting cancer earlier.
Taichman said it is possible that further research in blocking VSELs could potentially create a cure for cancer. Currently, Taichman’s lab is attempting to find inhibitors to block the cells as he applies for further funding to continue the research and approval for human trials. Jung said the next steps involve investigating the healing cells’ interaction throughout the progression of a cancerous tumor.
However, Taichman said many scientists still debate the existence of VSEL stem cells due to their small size and the difficulties associated with identifying them.
Taichman said reviewers may also question whether the findings will remain true in other types of cancers. Cancerous prostate tumors are typically used in Taichman’s lab because they often spread to other parts of the body, such as bones. The lab has also tested breast cancer tumors.
The research has come a long way since Jung’s initial curiosity led her to test the interactions between tumors and VSEL stem cells.
Jung said she wouldn’t characterize the choice as a surprising turn. Speaking for most scientists, Jung said she took into account information known in the field and composed a reasonable hypothesis.
“You are studying one thing, but you have a new technique and somebody in your lab has a sample that has never been looked at in those terms,” Taichman said. “So for fun you do it. You say ‘I wonder’ and that’s where some of the coolest things happen. You just never know where the next best idea is going to come from.”