Researchers Identify Novel Drivers of Cancer Stem Cells That Lead to Colon Cancer Development and Growth

Study findings offer new clues to targeting drug resistant colon cancers


Christiana Care scientists identify novel drivers of cancer stem cells that lead to colon cancer development and growth
Study findings offer new clues to targeting drug resistant colon cancers

Newswise — Wilmington, Del., Jan 30, 2018In breakthrough colon cancer research, scientists at Christiana Care Health System’s Center for Translational Cancer Research (CTCR) of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute have discovered that over-expression of HOXA4 and HOXA9 genes in colon cancer stem cells promotes cell replication and contributes to the overpopulation of stem cells that drives colon cancer development.

The findings suggest treatment with vitamin A derivatives, called retinoid drugs, could provide a therapeutic strategy for decreasing the expression of these HOX genes and for targeting highly resistant cancer stem cells.

The study, led by Bruce Boman, M.D., Ph.D., MSPH, FACP, medical director of Cancer Genetics and Stem Cell Biology at the CTCR, is the cover story in the February 2018 issue of the Journal of Cellular Physiology, Vol. 233, Issue 2.

“A few other labs have looked at the role of HOX genes in colon cancer,” Dr. Boman said, “but we are the first to identify the role of two specific HOX genes in colon cancer stem cell overpopulation, which drives tumor growth.”

Dr. Boman’s prior research contributed to the understanding of normal stem cells and how cancer stem cells play a role in the development and spread of colorectal cancer. Previously, his lab helped identify that these long-lived, uncommon cells start out as tissue stem cells that become cancer stem cells when certain mutations or mistakes occur in the genes that regulate cell renewal and overpopulation.

More recently, Dr. Boman and his team of scientists at the Graham Cancer Center focused on the role of HOX genes because these genes are known to be master regulators of stem cells, and because HOX gene expression has been found to malfunction in various types of cancer. Gene expression works as an on/off switch that regulates how cellular components are made. Adjusting the level of gene expression can directly impact cancer cell development and the drive to self-replicate.

What the team discovered was that lowering HOXA4 or HOXA9 expression in colon cancer stem cells decreases their self-renewal ability, reducing cell population, and inhibiting cell proliferation. The investigators concluded that therapeutically targeting HOX gene expression could reduce the self-renewal ability of malignant stem cells during cancer development.

To test this hypothesis, they chose All-Trans Retinoic Acid (ATRA), one of the most commonly investigated and clinically tested retinoic acid derivatives. Previous studies have shown that ATRA can reduce self-renewal ability in a number of other cancers.

Dr. Boman and his research team found that ATRA down-regulates HOX gene expression, decreases gene expression of a known stem cell biomarker (ALDH1) and reduced stem cell viability and renewal. “Our findings point to a number of possibilities for developing more effective, stem cell targeting therapies for advanced colorectal cancer,” Dr. Boman said.

Colon cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Conventional research over the last 50 years has shown that tumors undergo a series of genetic mutations that lead to the unchecked growth of tumors and their progression to metastatic cancer. Traditional therapies designed to kill the bulk of cancer tumor cells continue to fall short of a cure for advanced, drug-resistant colon cancers.

“The discovery of cancer stem cells has been nothing less than a paradigm shift,” Dr. Boman said. “Our thinking has shifted to the insight that cancers originate in tissue stem cells through dysregulation or malfunction of the self-renewal process and that cancer stem cells drive tumor growth.”

“Our work and that of others has shown that the optimal way to treat cancer, especially advanced cancer, is to eliminate cancer stem cells,” he said. “Given that cancer stem cell targeted agents are now entering clinical trials, we will soon know if this is the case.”

“Dr. Boman’s breakthrough research directs our focus to the roots of cancer’s origins at the molecular and cellular level,” said Nicholas J. Petrelli, M.D., Bank of America endowed medical director of Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute. “His work highlights the mission of the Center for Translational Cancer Research, shortening the path from bench to bedside for targeted therapies that can improve survival and quality of life for patients with drug resistant, advanced colorectal cancer.”

Lead author on the paper, entitled, “Overexpression of HOXA4 and HOXA9 genes promotes self-renewal and contributes to colon cancer stem cell overpopulation,” is former University of Delaware student researcher, Seema Bhatlekar, Ph.D., now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah. Co-authors are Vignesh Viswanathan, Ph.D. a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and former University of Delaware student researcher, and Jeremy Z. Fields, of CA-TX Inc., Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. The study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health (Grant number: P20RR-1 6472-04) and the Cancer B-Ware Foundation.

About the Center for Translational Cancer Research

The Center for Translational Cancer Research (CTCR) of Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute moves research from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside by applying basic science toward potential therapies. The CTCR is where scientists study the molecular causes of cancer, tissue engineering and gene editing, all targeted to better treatment for patients. Groundbreaking findings and current studies at the center are helping to prevent, better detect and stop the growth of many cancers — and as a result reducing cancer incidence and mortality rates in Delaware.

The Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute, a National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program, is part of Christiana Care Health System, one of the country’s largest health care systems, ranking as the 22nd leading hospital in the nation and 12th on the East Coast in terms of patient admissions. With more than 227,000 patient visits last year, the Graham Cancer Center is recognized as a national model for multidisciplinary cancer care and a top enroller in U.S. clinical research trials. In conjunction with the CTCR, the Tissue Procurement Center, Gene Editing Institute, statewide High-Risk Family Cancer Registry and collaborations with world-renowned scientists at facilities such as the University of Delaware and The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, scientists are opening new avenues to more quickly translate cancer science into cancer medicine. For more information, visit www.christianacare.org/cancer.

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