Scientists discover cells that may fuel brain tumour growth

In collaboration with the Press Association
Scientists may have discovered cancer stem cells in a type of brain tumour

A US study has found a group of cells that fuel the growth of a particular type of brain tumour. 

Called cancer stem cells, researchers found these cells helped oligodendrogliomas – a slow-growing but incurable form of brain cancer – to grow. 

"Whether cancer stem cells exist and help tumours develop is a fundamental question in cancer biology" – Dr Simona Parrinello, Cancer Research UK

According to co-senior study author Dr Mario Suvà, of the MGH Department of Pathology, the findings suggest that targeting these cells with treatments could help patients with this type of cancer.

"Our work strongly supports that cancer stem cells are the main source of growth in these tumours and, as such, should be considered promising targets for treatment," he added. 

Scientists are interested in cancer stem cells because they continually grow and give rise to different types of specialist cell, helping the tumour progress and become more diverse – a characteristic linked with poor survival. 

While these cells have been discovered in some types of cancer, in others their identities have yet to be revealed. 

For the latest study, which has been published in the journal Nature, the researchers sought to find these cells in oligodendrogliomas by looking at the activity of genes in tumours from six patients with early-stage disease. 

This identified a rare group of cells with patterns of gene activity that were different from those found in the majority of the tumour cells. This pattern was found to be linked with cell growth, suggesting that these particular cells are “primarily responsible for fuelling the growth of oligodendrogliomas,” the authors write in their study. 

Unlike the rest of the cells in the tumour these cells had yet to take on a specialised brain cell identity. Since stem cells give rise to specialised cells, this discovery, combined with the previous finding, suggests that these cells are likely to be cancer stem cells.  

Dr Simona Parrinello, a Cancer Research UK expert on brain tumours, described the study as “exciting” and said that the results “represent a very significant step forward for the field”.

“Whether cancer stem cells exist and help tumours develop is a fundamental question in cancer biology,” Parrinello added.  

“In this study, the researchers show convincingly that these cells exist in people with oligodendrogliomas. 

“They also show these cells fuel the growth of this type of tumour. These results have important implications for treatment.”

References

Tirosh, I. et al. 2016. Single-cell RNA-seq supports a developmental heirarchy in human oligodendrogliomas. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature20123