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Why Some Cancer Cells Are Resistant To Treatment

Cancer Cells

Researchers have been examining how some types of cancer stem cells remain viable in low oxygen conditions. Under such conditions most cells cannot thrive. The matter is of medical concern, since these survivor cells seem more resistant to chemotherapy. Furthermore, it is thought that the ability of the cells to survive low oxygen conditions helps them to spread. According to scientists at The Johns Hopkins University, finding a weak spit with these cells is key to tackling certain types of breast cancer.

New research reveals that the low-oxygen conditions (less than 1 percent oxygen) within which the cells can function helps to trigger faster growth through certain biochemical processes. These processes are seen as similar to the ones that allow embryonic stem cells to thrive. Pinpointing this biochemical path with the cancer could be the means for killing them.

While chemotherapy may kill some 99 percent of the cancer cells, by failing to kill a small survivor population this can lead to cancer relapse and metastasis. The survivor cells appear to be able to repopulate tumors.

The research to date has indicated the low oxygen conditions increase levels of a family of proteins called hypoxia-inducible factors. These proteins can turn-on several genes. One gene is NANOG, which instructs cells to become stem cells. Under conditions of methylation, the cells can become cancerous.

Studies on mice suggest that blocking the biochemical pathway stops the cancer forming process. More work is required to confirm this, but it could be the basis for a new therapeutic product.

A review has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is called “Hypoxia induces the breast cancer stem cell phenotype by HIF-dependent and ALKBH5-mediated m6A-demethylation of NANOG mRNA.”

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.