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Watching (cancer) stem cell behaviour in genetic mouse models

  • Researcher: Professor Jacco van Rheenen
  • Institution: Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research
  • Award Amount: £192,823 for 3 years from March 2013
  • Cancer Type: Breast Cancer
Watching (cancer) stem cell behaviour in genetic mouse models
Almost all normal tissues within our bodies have a tiny population of stem cells. Stem cells are a kind of 'starter cell' which can multiply and change into a wide variety of other cells depending on where they are located in the body. Stem cells are essential for our body's tissues to maintain themselves and repair. For cells to become cancer cells, several genetic mutations have to happen within that stem cell. As stem cells and cancer stem cells live for a long time, it is thought that they are the ideal cells in which several mutations could happen.

More recently, scientists have suggested that stem cells may lose some of the unique stem cell properties, and that they may even be replaced, within tissues, by cells that have become specialised cell types. It is thought that these cells revert back to stem cells. 

Dr van Rheenen and his team have developed state-of-the-art microscope technology which enables them to study live stem cells, in real time, to watch what they are doing as tumours develop and grow. They will use mice in which the stem cells, from healthy and cancerous bowel and breast tissues, have been genetically modified to be fluorescent so that they are able to watch what happens to these stem cells, as it happens within the mice, over a period of several weeks. They want to find out whether specific changes occur to the stem cells, and where they happen within tissues, as well as whether the stem cells are able to move about within tissues. They will also be looking to find out whether the number of stem cells within the tissues changes over time, and what role the suspected changes may play in the spread of tumours to other parts of the body. This study will answer some important questions about how stem cells contribute to cancer.
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