The lab has already teamed up with another research group to develop microscopic fluorescent probes to image the unique molecular surface of BASCs and track the progress of the naturally arising tumor, Jacks said. The similar genetic activity profile of mouse tumors with K-ras mutations to the profile of human lung cancer samples make the researchers optimistic about the relevance of targeting BASCs for early tumor detection and chemoprevention in the earliest stage of disease in people.
Discovery of the lung stem cells could lead to new therapies for other lung diseases, such as emphysema and cystic fibrosis. "We tend to emphasize cancer, because we are in a lab that studies cancer," Bender Kim said. "Identifying stem cells is the biggest part of the story. This population could be very useful for more than cancer."
In their paper, the researchers envision more medical possibilities, such as using the adult stem cells to restore defective tissue in incurable fatal chronic lung diseases, such as alveolar cells that are destroyed in emphysema. Or scientists could extract the BASCs, alter their genes, and replace them in a kind of cellular gene therapy for genetic diseases such a cystic fibrosis.
"This work has identified a new population of cells that links the normal biology of the lung to lung cancer development," said Bender Kim. "We need to continue to improve our understanding of how normal cells in the body develop, differentiate, and respond to damage in order to understand the origins of diseases and to develop better ways to treat them."