Monday, 2 April 2012

Embyronic Stem Cells linked to Cancer

Whether you understand the concept or not, it is unlikely that you are unaware of the term embryonic stem cell research. Perhaps one of the most controversial debates in modern medicine, stem cell research, more specifically that of embryonic stem cells, has been making its way from laboratories to newspaper headlines in recent years. Now widely recognized and somewhat understood in the general public, the debate has merely escalated.

The controversial nature of this particular field of science is due to an embryonic stem cell originating from ‘the inner mass of a blastocyst, a fertilized egg just four days after conception.’ (1) Embryonic Stem Cell Research is one of the leading fields in medicine used to potentially find cures for developmental or degenerative diseases that at the present time have none.

In a recent paper published by Genome Medicine, a comparison is made between embryonic stem cells and cancer cells in hopes that new found similarities may be the start of developing new therapy approaches for cancer patients. Such understanding of complex genomic information can be attributed to recent advances such as the ability to “profile gene expression, globally map transcription factor-DNA and protein-protein interactions” (1).  Methods such as these provide us with a profound comprehension of diverse cellular levels and have now been utilized to investigate shared properties of both cells such as self-renewal and pluripotency manipulation.

Self-renewal is a cells’ capacity to “maintain a proliferative state” (1) without modification to cellular characteristics. While cellular differentiation, otherwise termed “pluripotency, is the ability to generate all of the cell types of adult organisms.” (2) It is hypothesized that these common characteristics of stem cells and cancer cells may relate to common patterns of gene expression regulation, which might be associated with the embryonic state. (1)

In regards to the ‘embryonic’ cancer cell biology, an essential goal has been the exploration of certain cells that support cancers. Whilst examining a tumor, scientists may have located a population of cells that reinitiate the formation of the tumor and maintain its cancerous nature.  (1) Thus, they are also responsible for successfully resisting anti-cancer therapies. It is possible that these cells, termed ‘cancer stem cells’ may originate from adult stem cells.

Having began from a base group of known overlapping core transcript factors, it is now thought that Myc, an oncogene responsible for controlling a cells Embryonic Stem cell renewal acts in a different manner. Present in up to 70% of human cancers (4), Myc is thought to reprogram the cell by altering the chromosomal structure and in doing so, create a more “favourable environment during the reprogramming process” (1) It is only in a recent breakthrough that Myc-interacting partner proteins have been found present in Embryonic Stem cells. This discovery or Myc has provided a basis for our understanding of the “gene expression signatures that are shared between ES cells and cancer cells.” (1)

Whether supported or not, it cannot be denied that embryonic stem cell research has provided regenerative medicine with solutions to seemingly unfathomable questions. While the the identification of the overlapping expression signatures between both Embryonic Stem Cells and cancer cells is merely the beginning, with technology advancing at its current rate, anti-cancer drugs may be just around the corner.


1.     Kim, J and Orkin, S, 2011, Embryonic stem cell-specific signatures in cancer: insights into genomic regulatory networks and implications for medicine, Genome Daily, viewed 13 March 2012  


2.  Science daily, 2011, Switch That Controls Stem Cell Pluripotency Discovered, viewed 16 March 2012

3. Terese Winslow 2009, How Do Stem Cells Arise?, Stem Cell Information 2011 viewed 16 March 2012 <>

4. Goldthwaite, C 2011, Are Stem Cells Involved in Cancer? Stem Cell Information, viewed 15 March 2012

5. Pluripotent Stem Cells 2006, Hyscience, viewed 15 March 2012,

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