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Wriggling worms and migrating cancer

Blog posted by: Martin Christlieb

An article by Dr Mark Hill of the Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology and Prof Aziz Aboobaker of the Department of Zoology has been selected as the cover article of the October Issue of Development

The article describes a collaborative project to study the migrating behaviour of stem cells found in flat worms. The radiation expertise of Mark Hill’s team was used to shield all but a thin stripe of the worms’ bodies. X-ray exposure killed the stem cells everywhere except in the shielded area. The Zoology team led by Prof Aboobaker was then able to study how the remaining stem cells multiplied and migrated to replace the cells that had been killed.

Cell migration is a vital part of all our bodies.  Migration is fundamental to how we develop in the womb, it’s vital to how our bodies maintain and defend themselves, and it’s integral to how cancer spreads to form new (metastatic) colonies.

The spread of cancer is important because most cancer deaths happen to patients with metastatic disease. By understanding how stem cells move we will improve our understanding of how cancer spreads. If we understand this we may discover opportunities to improve outcomes for the half of cancer patients that we cannot currently save. 

Studying the way cancer cells migrate involves understanding how they move through both tumour and normal tissue. To study this we need cancer cells embedded in healthy tissue. We can’t study them in people with cancer, so we need a stand-in for the human patient. In this case the stand-in is a flat worm and the stand-in for the cancer cell is a stem cell. Worms are not people, so how do we know that what we see in the worm will be relevant to the case of cancer cells in human? 

Evolution led the earliest biological cells to a huge diversity of plants and animals. But the earliest evolutionary developments were often so vital and so effective that they have been preserved either unchanged or barely altered in species after species for billions of years. 

One of the most important discoveries of the project undertaken by Mark Hill and Aziz Aboobaker was confirmation that the genes the worm stem cells were using to migrate seem to be very similar to the genes available to human cancer cells.  It looks like the worms will be a good mimic for studying the behaviour we might expect in human cancers. 

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