Stem cells and prostate cancer are more similar than we thought

Prostate cancer is a scary word for men, no matter how macho or healthy they are. These days however, prostate cancer is no longer a death sentence for them. In fact, many men survive this disease if diagnosed early. However, for those unlucky ones who have more advanced stages of prostate cancer (where the tumor has metastasized and spread to other organs), the typical treatments used to fight the tumors don’t work effectively because advanced tumors become resistant to these therapies.

To help those afflicted with late stage prostate cancer, scientists are trying to understand the nature of prostate cancer cells and what makes them so “deadly”. By understanding the biology behind these tumor cells, they hope to develop better therapies to treat the late-stage forms of this disease.

UCLA scientists Bryan Smith and Owen Witte. (Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

UCLA scientists Bryan Smith and Owen Witte. (Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

But don’t worry, help is already on its way. Two groups from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Santa Cruz published a breakthrough discovery yesterday on the similarity between prostate cancer cells and prostate stem cells. The study was published in the journal PNAS and was led by senior author and director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, Dr. Owen Witte.

Using bioinformatics, Witte and his team compared the gene expression profiles of late-stage, metastatic prostate cancer cells sourced from tumor biopsies of living patients to healthy cell types in the male prostate. Epithelial cells are one of the main cell types in the prostate (they form the prostate glands) and they come in two forms: basal and luminal. When they compared the gene expression profiles of the prostate cancer cells to healthy prostate epithelial cells, they found that the cancer cells had a similar profile to normal prostate epithelial basal stem cells.

Image of a prostate cancer tumor. Green and red represent different stem cell traits and the yellow areas show where two stem cell traits are expressed together. (Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

Image of a prostate cancer tumor. Green and red represent different stem cell traits and the yellow areas show where two stem cell traits are expressed together. (Image credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

In fact, they discovered a 91-gene signature specific to the basal stem cells in the prostate. This profile included genes important for stem cell signaling and invasiveness. That meant that the metastatic prostate cancer cells also expressed “stem-like” genes.

First author Bryan Smith explained how their results support similar findings for other types of cancers. “Evidence from cancer research suggests that aggressive cancers have stem–cell-like traits. We now know this to be true for the most aggressive form of prostate cancer.”

So what does this study mean for prostate cancer patients? I’ll let Dr. Witte answer this one…

Treatments for early stage prostate cancer are often successful, but therapies that target the more aggressive and late-stage forms of the disease are urgently needed. I believe this research gives us important insight into the cellular nature of aggressive prostate cancer. Pinpointing the cellular traits of cancer — what makes those cells grow and spread — is crucial because then we can possibly target those traits to reverse or stop cancer’s progression. Our findings will inform our work as we strive to find treatments for aggressive prostate cancer.


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Beautiful by design: turning a stem cell research workplace into a work of art

Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine & Stem Cell Research, USC

Sometimes what seems like an interesting project, a fun thing to try out, turns out to be a great idea, one that has the power to completely transform the way others see what you do and where you do it. That’s what is happening at the Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of Southern California (USC).

A few weeks ago I told you how USC is using art to break down barriers, bringing together students studying art and design with stem cell researchers to collaborate on a project to come up with a new way of communicating about stem cells. The end results are far beyond what they had hoped for.

First, the art students toured the research facility, talked to the scientists and fell in love with the science. In a portfolio put together by the students they said they were “inspired by the imagery and research process.”

Then they got to work, coming up with ways of incorporating the imagery from stem cell research into the actual building itself. The students said they were inspired by the way the researchers worked together, and how the building itself seemed to promote that kind of collaboration because of its design. So, they set out to mirror that idea of collaboration by creating:

 “a designed environment that would enliven the space, enrich the researchers’ experience, convey a sense of the current research to visitors, and be visually energizing and engaging.”

They came up with a number of different proposals using different stem cell images and colors to brighten up the building and help give visual clues as to where you are in the facility. They wanted those colors and images to be part of the experience from the moment you walked in the lobby, to getting out of the elevator and walking down a corridor.

The end design will not just engage the eye but also the mind, using quotes from scientists, writers and patients to inspire people to think, to hope, and to reflect on the role that science plays in all our lives. One they have in mind comes from science fiction writer Ray Bradbury:

“The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance – the idea that anything is possible.”

Although the semester is almost over the students have asked if they can stay on over the summer, to help see the final designs implemented.

At USC they’re showing that an open mind and a vivid imagination can turn a work place into a work of art. The science inspired that art. Now the hope is that the art will inspire the science.

kevin mccormack