CHICAGO --- A protein that governs development of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) also inhibits the growth and spread of malignant melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, Northwestern University researchers have discovered. Metastatic melanoma, which develops from the transformation of skin pigment cells or melanocytes, has a death rate of more than 80 percent and a median survival of less than 7.5 months.
The Northwestern scientists, led by researcher Mary J. C. Hendrix, M.D., additionally found that the protein, called Lefty, prevents aggressive breast cancer cells from metastasizing. Death from metastatic breast cancer exceeded 40,000 in 2007, with over 180,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States.
Importantly, Lefty is secreted only in hESCs, and not in any other stem cell type tested including stem cells isolated from amniotic fluid, cord blood or adult bone marrow or placental cells.
Results of the study, described in an article in the March 3rd online version of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, build on an elegant body of research by the Hendrix lab to identify the genes and cellular pathways involved in cancer metastasis.
Dr. Hendrix is president and scientific director of the Childrens Memorial Research Center and professor in The Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Lynne-Marie Postovit, who was first author on the study and a post-doctoral trainee in the Hendrix lab, is currently an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.
Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can become any of 200-plus cell types in the adult body, depending on the signals they receive from their microenvironment (surrounding cells, tissues and vasculature). During cancer progression, malignant cells also receive and release signals from their microenvironment, cues that promote tumor growt
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