Cancer researchers can sequence tumour cells’ genomes, scan them for strange gene activity, profile their contents for telltale proteins and study their growth in laboratory dishes. What they have not been able to do is track errant cells doing what is more relevant to patients: forming tumours. Now three groups studying tumours in mice have done exactly that. Their results support the ideas that a small subset of cells drives tumour growth and that curing cancer may require those cells to be eliminated.
It is too soon to know whether these results — obtained for tumours of the brain, the gut and the skin — will apply to other cancers, says Luis Parada at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who led the brain study. But if they do, he says, “there is going to be a paradigm shift in the way that chemotherapy efficacy is evaluated and how therapeutics are developed”. Instead of testing whether a therapy shrinks a tumour, for instance, researchers would assess whether it kills the right sorts of cell.
Photo: (Nature.com/G. DRIESSENS). Researchers can now trace the cell lineage within a growing tumor. In this skin tumor, the red cells all originated from one stem cell.