Researchers from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre have discovered a possible cause of medulloblastoma, one of the world’s most common childhood cancers.
Cancer scientists have found mature cells in the brain can revert to basic stem cells and initiate cancer – a process previously thought not to be possible.
Trials undertaken in the fruit fly, which shares around 70 per cent common cancer genes with humans, found mature cells, in the absence of a key gene, revert into rapidly dividing stem cells that can cause brain tumours.
Dr Louise Cheng, Head of the Stem Cell Growth Regulation Laboratory at Peter Mac and lead author on the study, said, ‘It was thought that, once matured, brain cells or neurons could not go backwards and become stem cells again — but we found this process is in fact reversible.
“In our fruit fly model, we found that once a gene called Nerfin-1, which keeps neurons locked in a mature, non-dividing state, is lost, the neurons revert to an out-of-control stem cell state, rapidly initiating cancer and quickly becoming brain tumours.”
These findings are significant as medulloblastoma patients often have a faulty version of the human equivalent of this Nerfin-1 gene, called INSM1.
“INSM1 is frequently mutated in people with medulloblastoma and we believe preserving the protective role of INSM1 could prevent the reversion of mature neurons into stem cells, and stop cancer initiation in the brain,” said Dr Cheng.
“This is particularly important in the current treatment context where chemotherapy is used to target rapidly dividing cells, but does not kill non-dividing, mature cells, which we now know can be a cause of medulloblastoma, potentially explaining why chemotherapy is not always successful in treating brain cancers in the long term.”
This discovery that non-dividing cells may also cause cancer now opens the door for cancer scientists to develop of new targeted therapies and drugs with the potential to block this reversion of non-dividing cells and eliminate cancer-causing stem cell populations altogether.
This information was originally published on the Peter MacCallum website and can be found here.