Predicting the Impact of Stem Cell Cures on Healthcare Burden in California

A new independent report says developing stem cell treatments and cures for some of the most common and deadly diseases could produce multi-billion dollar benefits for California in reduced healthcare costs and improved quality and quantity of life.

The report, by researchers at the University of Southern California’s Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics, looked at the value of hypothetical future interventions to reduce or cure cancer, diabetes, stroke and blindness.

Predicting the future is always complicated and uncertain and many groups are looking at the best models to determine the value and economic impact of cell and gene therapy as the first products are just entering the market. This study provides some insights into the potential financial benefits of developing effective stem cell treatments for some of the most intractable diseases affecting California today.

The impact could affect millions of people. In 2018 for Californians over the age of 50:

  • Nearly half were predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetime
  • More than one third will experience a stroke
  • Between 5 and 8 percent will develop either breast, colorectal, lung, or prostate cancer

The report says that a therapy that decreased the incidence of diabetes by 50 percent in Californians over the age of 51 would translate into a gain for the state of $322 billion in social value between now and 2050. Even just reducing diabetes 10% would lead to a gain of $60 billion in social value over the same period.

  • For stroke a 50 percent reduction would generate an estimated $229 billion in social value. A 10 percent reduction would generate $47 billion
  • For breast cancer a 50 percent reduction would generate $56 billion in social value; for colorectal cancer it would be $72 billion; for lung cancer $151 billion; and prostate cancer $53 billion. 

The impact of a cure for any one of those diseases would be enormous. For example, a 51-year-old woman cured of lung cancer could expect to gain a lifetime social value of almost half a million dollars ($467,275). That’s a measure of years of healthy life gained, of years spent enjoying time with family and friends and not wasting away or lying in a hospital bed.

The researchers say: “Though advances in scientific research defy easy predictions, investing in biomedical research is important if we want to reduce the burden of common and costly diseases for individuals, their families, and society. These findings show the value and impact breakthrough treatments could have for California.”

“Put in this context, the CIRM investment would be worthwhile if it increased our chances of success even modestly. Against the billions of dollars in disease burden facing California, the relatively small initial investment is already paying dividends as researchers work to bring new therapies to patients.”

The researchers determined the “social value” using a measure called a quality adjusted life-year (QALY). This is a way of estimating the cost effectiveness and consequences of treating or not treating a disease. For example, one QALY is equivalent to one year of perfect health for an individual. In this study the value of that year was estimated at $150,000. If someone is sick with, say, diabetes, their health would be estimated to be 0.5 QALY or $75,000. So, the better health a person enjoys and the longer they enjoy it the higher QALY score they accumulate. In the case of a disease affecting millions of people in that state or country that can obviously lead to very large QALY scores representing potentially billions of dollars.

Newly discovered “don’t eat me” signal shows potential for ovarian and triple-negative breast cancer treatment

Stanford researchers have found that cancer cells have a protein called CD24 on their surface that enables them to protect themselves against the body’s immune cells.
Courtesy of Shutterstock

Getting a breast cancer diagnosis is devastating news in and of itself. Currently, there are treatment options that target three different types of receptors, which are named hormone epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER-2), estrogen receptors (ER), and progesterone receptors (PR), commonly found in breast cancer cells, . Unfortunately, in triple-negative breast cancer, which occurs in 10-20% of breast cancer cases, all three receptors are absent, making this form of breast cancer very aggressive and difficult to treat.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that proteins on the cell surface can tell macrophages, an immune cell designed to detect and engulf foreign or abnormal cells, not to eat and destroy them. This can be useful to help normal cells keep the immune system from attacking them, but cancer cells can also use these “don’t eat me” signals to hide from the immune system. 

An illustration of a macrophage, a vital part of the immune system, engulfing and destroying a cancer cell. Antibody 5F9 blocks a “don’t eat me” signal emitted from cancer cells. Courtesy of Forty Seven, Inc.

In fact, because of this concept, a CIRM-funded clinical trial is being conducted that uses an antibody called 5F9 to block a “don’t eat me” signal known as CD47 that is found in cancer cells. The results of this trial, which have been announced in a previous blog post, are very promising.

Further building on this concept, a CIRM-funded study has now discovered a potential new target for triple-negative breast cancer as well as ovarian cancer. Dr. Irv Weissman and a team of researchers at Stanford University have discovered an additional “don’t eat me” signal called CD24 that cancers seem to use to evade detection and destruction by the immune system.

In a press release, Dr. Weissman talks about his work with CD47 and states that,

“Finding that not all patients responded to anti-CD47 antibodies helped fuel our research at Stanford to test whether non-responder cells and patients might have alternative ‘don’t eat me’ signals.” 

The scientists began by looking for signals that were produced more highly in cancers than in the tissues from which the cancers arose. It is here that they discovered CD24 and then proceeded to implant human breast cancer cells in mice for testing. When the CD24 signaling was blocked, the mice’s immune system attacked the cancer cells.

An important discovery was that ovarian and triple-negative breast cancer were highly affected by blocking of CD24 signaling. The other interesting discovery was that the effectiveness of CD24 blockage seems to be complementary to CD47 blockage. In other words, some cancers, like blood cancers, seem to be highly susceptible to blocking CD47, but not to CD24 blockage. For other cancers, like ovarian cancer, the opposite is true. This could suggest that most cancers will be susceptible to the immune system by blocking the CD24 or CD47 signal, and that cancers may be even more vulnerable when more than one “don’t eat me” signal is blocked.

Dr. Weissman and his team are now hopeful that potential therapies to block CD24 signaling will follow in the footsteps of the clinical trials related to CD47.

The full results to the study were published in Nature.

CIRM Board Approves New Clinical Trial for Breast Cancer Related Brain Metastases

Dr. Saul Priceman

Yesterday the governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) awarded $9.28 million to Dr. Saul Priceman at City of Hope to conduct a clinical trial for the treatment of breast cancer related brain metastases, which are tumors in the brain that have spread from the original site of the breast cancer.

This award brings the total number of CIRM-funded clinical trials to 56. 

Breast cancer is the second-most common cancer in women, both in the United States (US) and worldwide.  It is estimated that over 260,000 women in the US will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019 and 1 out of 8 women in the US will get breast cancer at some point during her lifetime. Some types of breast cancer have a high likelihood of metastasizing to the brain.  When that happens, there are few treatment options, leading to a poor prognosis and poor quality of life. 

Dr. Priceman’s clinical trial is testing a therapy to treat brain metastases that came from breast cancers expressing high levels of a protein called HER2.   The therapy consists of a genetically-modified version of the patient’s own T cells, which are an immune system cell that can destroy foreign or abnormal cells.  The T cells are modified with a protein called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) that recognizes the tumor protein HER2.  These modified T cells (CAR-T cells) are then infused into the patient’s brain where they are expected to detect and destroy the HER2-expressing tumors in the brain.

CIRM has also funded the earlier work related to this study, which was critical in preparing the therapy for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

“When a patient is told that their cancer has metastasized to other areas of the body, it can be devastating news,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., the President and CEO of CIRM.  “There are few options for patients with breast cancer brain metastases.  Standard of care treatments, which include brain irradiation and chemotherapy, have associated neurotoxicity and do little to improve survival, which is typically no more than a few months.  CAR-T cell therapy is an exciting and promising approach that now offers us a more targeted approach to address this condition.”

The CIRM Board also approved investing $19.7 million in four awards in the Translational Research program. The goal of this program is to help promising projects complete the testing needed to begin talking to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about holding a clinical trial.

Dr. Mark Tuszynski at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) was awarded $6.23 million to develop a therapy for spinal cord injury (SCI). Dr. Tuszynski will use human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to create neural stem cells (NSCs) which will then be grafted at the injury site.  In preclinical studies, the NSCs have been shown to help create a kind of relay at the injury site, restoring communication between the brain and spinal cord and re-establishing muscle control and movement.

Dr. Mark Humayun at the University of Southern California (USC) was awarded $3.73 million to develop a novel therapeutic product capable of slowing the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in the US.

The approach that Dr. Humayun is developing will use a biologic product produced by human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). This material will be injected into the eye of patients with early development of dry AMD, supporting the survival of photoreceptors in the affected retina, the kind of cells damaged by the disease.

The TRAN1 awards went to:

Stay tuned for our next blog which will dive into each of these awards in much more detail.

Developing a non-toxic approach to bone-crushing cancers

When cancer spreads to the bone the results can be devastating

Battling cancer is always a balancing act. The methods we use – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – can help remove the tumors but they often come at a price to the patient. In cases where the cancer has spread to the bone the treatments have a limited impact on the disease, but their toxicity can cause devastating problems for the patient. Now, in a CIRM-supported study, researchers at UC Irvine (UCI) have developed a method they say may be able to change that.

Bone metastasis – where cancer starts in one part of the body, say the breast, but spreads to the bones – is one of the most common complications of cancer. It can often result in severe pain, increased risk of fractures and compression of the spine. Tackling them is difficult because some cancer cells can alter the environment around bone, accelerating the destruction of healthy bone cells, and that in turn creates growth factors that stimulate the growth of the cancer. It is a vicious cycle where one problem fuels the other.

Now researchers at UCI have developed a method where they combine engineered mesenchymal stem cells (taken from the bone marrow) with targeting agents. These act like a drug delivery device, offloading different agents that simultaneously attack the cancer but protect the bone.

Weian Zhao; photo courtesy UC Irvine

In a news release Weian Zhao, lead author of the study, said:

“What’s powerful about this strategy is that we deliver a combination of both anti-tumor and anti-bone resorption agents so we can effectively block the vicious circle between cancers and their bone niche. This is a safe and almost nontoxic treatment compared to chemotherapy, which often leaves patients with lifelong issues.”

The research, published in the journal EBioMedicine, has already been shown to be effective in mice. Next, they hope to be able to do the safety tests to enable them to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for permission to test it in people.

The team say if this approach proves effective it might also be used to help treat other bone-related diseases such as osteoporosis and multiple myeloma.

A cancer therapy developed at a CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic tests its legs against breast cancer

Breast cancer cells

Three-dimensional culture of human breast cancer cells, with DNA stained blue and a protein on the cell surface membrane stained green. Image courtesy The National Institutes of Health

A Phase 1 clinical trial co-sponsored by CIRM and Oncternal Therapeutics, has started treating patients at UC San Diego (UCSD). The goal of the trial is to test the safety and anti-tumor activity of the Oncternal-developed drug, cirmtuzumab, in treating breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer to occur in women, regardless of race or ethnicity. More than 260,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed this year in the United States alone. Typically, breast cancer cases are treated by a combination of surgery to remove the tumor locally, followed by some kind of systemic treatment, like chemotherapy, which can eliminate cancer cells in other parts of the body. In certain cases, however, surgery might not be a feasible option. Cirmtuzumab may be a viable option for these patients.

The drug acts by binding to a protein called ROR1, which is highly abundant on the surface of cancer cells. By blocking the protein Cirmtuzumab is able to promote cell death, stopping the cancer from spreading around the body.

Because ROR1 is also found on the surface of healthy cells there were concerns using cirmtuzumab could lead to damage to healthy tissue. However, a previous study revealed that using this kind of approach, at least in a healthy non-human primate model did not lead to any adverse clinical symptoms. Therefore, this protein is a viable target for cancer treatment and is particularly promising because it is a marker of many different types of cancers including leukemia, lung cancer and breast cancer.

Phase 1 clinical trials generally enroll a small number of patients who have do not have other treatment options. The primary goals are to determine if this approach is safe, if it causes any serious side-effects, what is the best dosage of the drug and how the drug works in the body. This clinical trial will enroll up to 15 patients who will receive cirmtuzumab in combination with paclitaxel (Taxol), a vetted chemotherapy drug, for six months.

Earlier this year, a similar clinical trial at UCSD began to test the effectiveness a of cirmtuzumab-based combination therapy to treat patients with B-cell cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia. This trial was also partially funded by CIRM.

In a press release, Dr. Barbara Parker, the co-lead on this study states:

“Our primary objective, of course, is to determine whether the drug combination is safe and tolerable and to measure its anti-tumor activity. If it proves safe and shows effectiveness against breast cancer, we can progress to subsequent trials to determine how best to use the drug combination.”

Stem Cell Roundup: Protein shows promise in treating deadliest form of breast cancer: mosquito spit primes our body for disease

Triple negative breast cancerTriple negative breast cancer is more aggressive and difficult to treat than other forms of the disease and, as a result, is more likely to spread throughout the body and to recur after treatment. Now a team at the University of Southern California have identified a protein that could help change that.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, showed that a protein called TAK1 allows cancer cells from the tumor to migrate to the lungs and then form new tumors which can spread throughout the body. There is already an FDA-approved drug called OXO that has been shown to block TAK1, but this does not survive in the blood so it’s hard to deliver to the lungs.

The USC team found a way of using nanoparticles, essentially a tiny delivery system, to take OXO and carry it to the lungs to attack the cancer cells and stop them spreading.

triple_negative_breast_cancer_particle_graphic-768x651In a news release Min Yu, the principal investigator on the team, said that although this has only been tested in mice the results are encouraging:

“For patients with triple-negative breast cancer, systemic chemotherapies are largely ineffective and highly toxic. So, nanoparticles are a promising approach for delivering more targeted treatments, such as OXO, to stop the deadly process of metastasis.”

Mosquito spit and your immune system

Mosquito

Mosquito bite: Photo courtesy National Academy of Sciences

Anyone who has ever been bitten by a mosquito knows that it can be itchy and irritable for hours afterwards. But now scientists say the impact of that bite can last for much longer, days in fact, and even help prime your body for disease.

The scientists say that every time a mosquito bites you they inject saliva into the bite to keep the blood flowing freely. But that saliva also has an impact on your immune system, leaving it more vulnerable to diseases like malaria.

OK, so that’s fascinating, and really quite disgusting, but what does it have to do with stem cells? Well, researchers at the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Malaria and Vector Research Laboratory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia engrafted human stem cells into mice to study the problem.

They found that mice with the human stem cells developed more severe symptoms of dengue fever if they were bitten by a mosquito than if they were just injected with dengue fever.

In an article in Popular Science Jessica Manning, an infectious disease expert at the NIH, said previously we had no idea that mosquito spit had such a big impact on us:

“The virus present in that mosquito’s saliva, it’s like a Trojan horse. Your body is distracted by the saliva [and] having an allergic reaction when really it should be having an antiviral reaction and fighting against the virus. Your body is unwittingly helping the virus establish infection because your immune system is sending in new waves of cells that this virus is able to infect.”

The good news is that if we can develop a vaccine against the saliva we may be able to protect people against malaria, dengue fever, Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases.

Stem cell study holds out promise for kidney disease

Kidney failure

Image via youtube.com

Kidney failure is the Rodney Dangerfield of diseases, it really doesn’t get the respect it deserves. An estimated 660,000 Americans suffer from kidney failure and around 47,000 people die from it every year. That’s more than die from breast or prostate cancer. But now a new study has identified a promising stem cell candidate that could help in finding a way to help repair damaged kidneys.

Kidneys are the body’s waste disposal system, filtering our blood and cleaning out all the waste products. Our kidneys have a limited ability to help repair themselves but if someone suffers from chronic kidney disease then their kidneys are slowly overwhelmed and that leads to end stage renal disease. At that point the patient’s options are limited to dialysis or an organ transplant.

Survivors hold out hope

Italian researchers had identified some cells in the kidneys that showed a regenerative ability. These cells, which were characterized by the expression of a molecule called CD133, were able to survive injury and create different types of kidney cells.

Researchers at the University of Torino in Italy decided to take these findings further and explore precisely how CD133 worked and if they could take advantage of that and use it to help repair damaged kidneys.

In their findings, published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, the researchers began by working with a chemotherapy drug called cisplatin, which is used against a broad range of cancers but is also known to cause damage to kidneys in around one third of all patients. The team found that CD133 was an important factor in helping those damaged kidneys recover. They also found that CD133 prevents aging of kidney progenitor cells, the kind of cell needed to help create new cells to repair the kidneys in future.

Hope for further research

The finding opens up a number of possible lines of research, including exploring whether infusions of CD133 could help patients whose kidneys are no longer able to produce enough of the molecule to help repair damage.

In an interview in DD News, Dr. Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine – praised the research:

“This is an interesting and novel finding. Because the work identifies mechanisms potentially involved in the repair of tissue after injury, it suggests the possibility of new therapies for tissue repair and regeneration.”

CIRM is funding several projects targeting kidney disease including four clinical trials for kidney failure. These are all late-stage kidney failure problems so if the CD133 research lives up to its promise it might be able to help people at an earlier stage of disease.

UC Irvine scientists engineer stem cells to “feel” cancer and destroy it

By blocking cell division, chemotherapy drugs take advantage of the fact that cancer cells multiply rapidly in the body. Though this treatment can extend and even save the lives of cancer patients, it’s somewhat like destroying an ant hill with an atomic bomb: there’s a lot of collateral damage. The treatment is infused through the blood so healthy cells that also divide frequently – like those in hair follicles, the intestines and bone marrow – succumb to the chemotherapy. To add insult to injury, cancers often become resistant to these drugs and metastasize, or invade, other parts of the body. Sadly, this spreading of a cancer is responsible for 90% of cancer deaths.

uci-stem-cell-therapy-attacks-cancer-by-targeting-unique-tissue-stiffness

UCI doctoral students Shirley Zhang, left, and Linan Liu are co-leading authors of the study. Photo: UC Irvine

Developing more specific, effective anti-cancer therapies is the focus of many research institutes and companies. While some new strategies target cell surface proteins that are unique to cancer cells, a UC Irvine (UCI) team has devised a stem cell-based technique that can seek out and destroy breast cancer cells that have metastasized in the lungs of mice by sensing the stiffness of the surrounding tissue. The CIRM-funded study was published this week in Science Translational Medicine.

While cells make up the tissues and organs of our bodies, they also secrete proteins and molecules that form a scaffold between cells called the extracellular matrix. This cell scaffolding is not just structural, it also plays a key role in regulating cell growth and other functions. And previous studies have shown that at sites of tumors, accumulation of collagen and other proteins in the matrix increases tissue stiffness and promotes metastasis.

Based on this knowledge, the UCI team aimed to create a cell system that would release chemotherapy drugs in response to increased stiffness. It turns out that mesenchymal stem cells – which give rise to bone, muscle, cartilage and fat – not only migrate to tumors in the body but also activate particular genes in response to the stiffness of their local cellular environment.  The researchers engineered mesenchymal stem cells to carry a gene that codes for a protein involved in the activation of a chemotherapy drug which is given by mouth. They also designed the gene to turn on only when it encounters stiff, cancerous tissue. They called the method a mechanoresponsive cell system (MRCS).

To test the MRCS, mice were infused with human breast cancer cells, which metastasized or spread to the lung. The MRCS-engineered mesenchymal stem cells were infused through the blood and homed to the lungs where they activated the chemotherapy drug which caused localized killing of the tumor cells with minimal damage to lung tissue. When the MRSC stem cells were given to mice without tumors, no increase in tissue damage was seen, proving that the MRSC-induced chemotherapy drug is only activated in the presence of cancerous tissue and has few side effects.

In a press release, team leader Weian Zhao, explained that these promising results could have wide application:

Weian-Zhao2-757x1024

Weian Zhao
Photo: UC Irvine

“This published work is focused on breast cancer metastases in the lungs. However, the technology will be applicable to other metastases as well, because many solid tumors have the hallmark of being stiffer than normal tissue. This is why our system is innovative and powerful, as we don’t have to spend the time to identify and develop a new genetic or protein marker for every kind of cancer.”

 

The team envisions even more applications. The MRCS could be engineered to carry genes that would enable detection with imaging technologies like PET scans. In this scenario, the MRCS could act as a highly sensitive detection system for finding areas of very early metastases when current techniques would miss them. They could also design the MRCS to activate genes that code for proteins that can break down and soften the stiff cancerous tissues which may inhibit the ability for a tumor to spread.

New target for defeating breast cancer stem cells uncovered

Stashed away in most of your tissues and organs lie small populations of adult stem cells. They help keep our bodies functioning properly by replenishing dying or damaged cells. Their ability to make more copies of themselves, as needed, ensures that there’s always an adequate supply set aside. But this very same self-renewing, life-sustaining property of adult stem cells is deadly in the hands of cancer stem cells. Also called tumor-initiating cells, cancer stem cells sustain tumor growth even after chemotherapy and are thought to be a primary cause of cancer relapse.

MG_11280x800

Microscopic image of normal mouse mammary ducts. Mammary stem cells are found among basal cells (green). Image courtesy of Toni Celià-Terrassa and Yibin Kang, Princeton University

By studying adult and cancer stem cells side-by-side, Princeton researchers report this week in Nature Cell Biology that they’ve uncovered a common function in both cells types that not only helps explain an adult stem cell’s self-renewing ability but also points to new therapeutic approaches to targeting breast cancer stem cells.

Both adult and cancer stem cells continually resist signals from their environment that encourage them to specialize, or differentiate, into a particular cell type. Once specialized, the cells lose their ability to self-renew and will eventually die off. Now, if all the adult stem cells in an organ followed that instruction, they would eventually become depleted and the organ would lose the ability to repair itself. The same holds true for cancer stem cells which actually would be a good thing since it would lead to the tumor’s death.

The Princeton team first identified a molecule called miR-199a that allows mammary (breast) stem cells to resist differentiation signals by directly blocking the production of a protein called LCOR. Artificially boosting the amount of miR-199a led to a decrease in LCOR levels and an increase in stem cell function. But when LCOR levels were increased, mammary stem cell function was restricted.

The researchers then turned their attention to breast cancer stem cells and found the same miR-199a/LCOR function at work. In a similar fashion, boosting miR-199a levels enhanced cancer stem cell function and increased tumor formation while increasing LCOR restricted the tumor-forming ability of the breast cancer stem cells.

These lab results also matched up with tissue samples taken from breast cancer patients. High miR-199a levels in the samples correlated with low patient survival rates. But those with high levels of LCOR showed a better prognosis.

It turns out that cells in our immune system are responsible for boosting LCOR in mammary and breast cancer stem cells by releasing a protein called interferon alpha. So the presence of interferon alpha nudges mammary stem cells to mature into mammary gland cells and inhibits breast cancer stems from forming tumors. But in the presence of elevated miR-199a levels, mammary and breast cancer stem cells are protected and maintain their numbers by deactivating the interferon alpha/LCOR signal.

If you’re still with me, these results point to miR-199a as a promising target for restoring interferon-alpha’s cancer interfering properties. Team leader Dr. Yibin Kang highlighted this possibility in a Princeton University press release:

“Interferons have been widely used for the treatment of multiple cancer types. These treatments might become more effective if the interferon-resistant cancer stem cells can be rendered sensitive by targeting the miR-199a-LCOR pathway.”

Sleep inducing hormone puts breast cancer cells to rest  

It’s pretty easy to connect the dots between a lack of sleep and an increased risk of a deadly car crash. But what about an increased risk of cancer? A 2012 study of 101 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer found that those with inadequate sleep were more likely to have more aggressive tumors. Though the results of this survey were statistically significant, the biological connection between sleep and breast cancer is not well understood.

melatonin

Melatonin, the sleep hormone, may help fight cancer. Image Credit

Now, a report in Genes and Cancer by a Michigan State University research team shows that the interplay between melatonin, a hormone involved in sleep-wake cycles, and breast cancer stem cells may provide an explanation. And, more importantly, the study points to melatonin’s potential use as a cancer therapeutic.

Mammospheres: cancer in a more natural environment
To carry out their lab experiments, the researchers grew breast cancer cells into three-dimensional aggregates, called mammospheres, that resemble the tumor cell composition seen in an actual tumor in the body. This cell mix includes breast cancer stem cells which are thought to drive the uncontrolled tumor growth and reccurrence. David Arnosti, a MSU professor and co-author on the study, used a helpful analogy in a university press release to explain the importance of using the mammosphere technique:

“You can watch bears in the zoo, but you only understand bear behavior by seeing them in the wild. Similarly, understanding the expression of genes in their natural environment reveals how they interact in disease settings. That’s what is so special about this work.”

 

Melatonin fighting cancer cells via their stem cell-like properties
The cancer cells used in this study are also categorized as so-called estrogen receptor (ER) -positive cells. This classification means that the cancer growth is largely stimulated by the hormone estrogen.  The first round of experiments analyzed melatonin’s effects on estrogen’s ability to increase the growth and size of the mammospheres. The team also tested Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in the plastics industry that mimics estrogen’s effects. While estrogen or BPA alone caused a large increase in mammosphere size and number, addition of melatonin stunted these effects.

Next, the team went deeper and looked at melatonin’s impact from a genes and proteins perspective. Estrogen is a steroid hormone that acts by passing through the cell wall and binding to the estrogen receptor inside the cell. Once bound by estrogen, the receptor travels to a cell’s nucleus and binds particular regions of DNA which can activate genes. One of those activated genes is responsible for producing OCT4, a protein that plays a critical role in a stem cell’s ability to indefinitely makes copies of itself and to maintain its unspecialized, stem cell state. This cellular pathway is how estrogen helps drives the growth of ER-positive breast cancer cells. The researchers showed that estrogen- and BPA-stimulated binding of the estrogen receptor to the OCT4 gene in the mammospheres was inhibited when melatonin was added to the cells.

Melatonin: putting cancer stems to bed?
Putting these observations together, melatonin appears to suppress breast tumor growth by directing inhibiting genes responsible for driving the stem cell-like properties of the breast cancer stem cells within the mammosphere. Melatonin is produced by the brain’s pineal gland which is only active at night. Once released, melatonin helps induce sleep. So a disrupted sleep pattern, like insomnia, would reduce melatonin levels and as a consequence the block on estrogen driven cancer growth is removed. ­

James Trosko, whose MSU lab perfected the mammosphere technique, sees these breast cancer results in a larger perspective:

“This work establishes the principal by which cancer stem cell growth may be regulated by natural hormones, and provides an important new technique to screen chemicals for cancer-promoting effects, as well as identify potential new drugs for use in the clinic.”

 

Keep in mind that these are very preliminary studies and more work is needed before a potential clinical application sees the light of day. In the meantime, have a good day and get a good night’s sleep.