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Recurring Breast Cancer: Scientists Figure Out Why

First Posted: Nov 19, 2016 02:43 AM EST

Breast cancer is one of the deadliest diseases among women and this is because it recurs despite the efforts to kill the cancer cells. A team of scientists may have solved the puzzling question about breast cancer relapse. They found that cancer cells camouflage themselves and eat the body's own stem cells.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers at the Texas A&M College of Medicine have found that dormant tumor cells may have become latent because they cannibalized the body's own stem cells.

They discovered this while studying about a new cancer treatment wherein they teach adult stem cells in the bone marrow called mesenchymal stem/stromal cells (MSCs). Apparently, they noticed that the MSCs were disappearing in the cell cultures, hinting that the breast cancers were eating the stem cells.

"We eventually realized that the breast cancer cells were eating the stem cells. What was really interesting was what happened next: The breast cancer cells that had taken in the stem cells went dormant-essentially became 'sleepy'-but at the same time they became much more difficult to kill," said lead author Thomas J. Bartosh, PhD, in a press release by Texas A&M College of Medicine.

The cancer cells that have eaten the stem cells are now highly resistant to chemotherapy and nutrient deprivation. These treatment options are effective in killing other cancerous cells but not with breast cancer cells, since they kept recurring. The problem is, these dormant cancer cells will someday "wake up" and start proliferating again. These new cancer cells are stronger and more difficult to combat, reducing the chances of successful treatment.

The scientists hope that the new explanation on how breast cancer recur could pave way for new treatment options where these cannibalistic cells are targeted or to keep them dormant forever. Another possible solution to the problem is to keep these breast cancer cells from eating the body's stem cells in the first place, reducing the risk of relapse.

"If these findings do translate to humans, the implications for patients would be enormous," Bartosh added.

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