11:38 AM

Newly discovered stem cell offers clues to a cancer mystery

The Washington Post reports that scientists have discovered a new type of stem cell in the spine that appears crucial to resolving a long-standing mystery: why far more cancer cells spread to the spine than to other bones in the body. 

When breast, lung and prostate cancers metastasize to multiple bones in the body, three to five times more cancer winds up in the spine than in the lower and upper limbs. Scientists have known of this disparity for decades, but the reason for it has remained unclear. 

One theory held that differences in blood flow might be the cause. But the new findings suggest an alternative that could have implications for cancer care, spine fusion surgery and osteoporosis, a bone-weakening disease that afflicts about 10 million Americans. 

In the journal Nature, researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine and HSS report the discovery of what they have called vertebral skeletal stem cells in the spine. These cells make a protein that acts as a “come here” signal to tumor cells, a finding that raises new treatment possibilities. 

“We predict this discovery will lead to the targeting of these cells to disrupt the function and ultimately reduce the spread of cancer to the spine,” said Matthew B. Greenblatt, one of the study’s authors and a pathologist at Weill Cornell Medicine. In work spanning five years, scientists found the cells first in mice, then in humans. The cells, which are responsible for bone formation in the vertebrae, appear as the bone hardens.

Dr. Greenblatt and his co-author on the Nature paper, Sravisht Iyer, MD,  spine surgeon at HSS, are investigating the role the new stem cell plays in responding to spine fusion surgery. They want to determine whether an implant of the new stem cell at the time of surgery can improve fusion. The two scientists also suspect there may be a second type of vertebral skeletal stem cell. When they blocked the ability of the new stem cell to form bone, they still found small amounts of bone in some regions of the spine, raising the question of whether a second stem cell type might be responsible.

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