It was just a tiny speck, a single cell that researchers had marked with a fluorescent green dye. But it was the very first cell of what would grow to be a melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Never before had researchers captured a cancer so early.
The cell was not a cancer yet. But its state was surprising: It was a cell that had reverted to an embryonic form, when it could have developed into any cell type. As it began to divide, cancer genes took over and the single primitive cell barreled forward into a massive tumor.
Those were the findings of Dr. Leonard Zon of Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Charles K. Kaufman, and their colleagues, in a study published Thursday in the journal Science that offers new insight into how cancers may develop. The researchers stumbled on that first cell of a melanoma when they set out to solve a puzzle that has baffled cancer investigators: Why do many cells that have cancer genes never turn cancerous?
The work was in fish that had been given human genes, but the investigators found the same genetic programs in human melanomas, indicating that they too started when a cell reverted back to an embryonic state. Researchers say the result can help them understand why melanomas and possibly other cancers form, and potentially prevent them. And it may provide a way to stop melanomas from growing back after they have been cut down by new targeted drugs. Read more