‘Cellfie’ of the month: February 2017

How is it February already?! I swear it was only last weekend that I was in bed all day nursing my New Year’s Day hangover! I would like to think there would be some signs that Spring is on it’s way – but that is not looking likely here as I look out of the office window and this wet, cold and miserable day here in the UK!

But it is Friday – or should I say Fri-yay! – and it’s a brand new month with a brand new Cellfie!

As tomorrow (4th February) is World Cancer Day – I thought I would share some images of the cancer stem cells I work on.

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So you might now be thinking  – I thought you worked with embryonic stem cells, why are you working on cancer stem cells?

There is a very simple answer to this question – I work on both! Embryonic stem cells are my main focus but due to the similarities between them and cancer stem cells I do dabble in some comparison work.

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So. lets start off my asking what are cancer stem cells and what do they look like?

Much like embryonic stem cells can turn into, or differentiate, into any cell type that we can find in our bodies, cancer stem cells can become any of the cell types that make up the tumour which it came from! Ideally, these are the cells that we need to make sure we eradicate with treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy – because even if only one of these cancer stem cells survives, it can form a completely new tumour all by itself!!! So essentially – cancer stem cells are the stem cells of a tumour. The ones I use are from testicular cancer.

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I have shown in previous ‘Cellfie’ of the month blog posts that embryonic stem cells in the lab, like to grow in colonies. However, cancer stem cells like to grow in one flat sheet across the bottom of our cell culture plates in what we call a monolayer. The dark circles are the large nuclei of the cells which is home to the cell’s DNA . And those circles are surrounded by the cytoplasm which is where the cell makes all its proteins.

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What similarities are there between embryonic stem cells and cancer stem cells?

The key similarities for my research are that they express the pluripotency markers OCT4, SOX2 and NANOG – like the embryonic stem cells do, as shown using one of my immunocytochemistry images below, and they have a similar metabolism – or way of producing their energy through a process called glycolysis. They can also continuously make identical copies of themselves, called self-renewal.

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An immunocytochemistry image of some of my cancer stem cells. The green staining indicates that they are expressing  a key stem cell protein in their nucleus called OCT4.

Because of these similarities as well as a variety of others, it is thought that cancer stem cells like the ones I use could be used as a model system to study pluripotency, or ways of keeping stem cells as stem cells – especially as they are much, much cheaper and easier to grow than embryonic stem cells!

But why should YOU be interested in cancer stem cell research?

Ultimately, we want to gain some sort of clinical benefit from studying cancer stem cells to stop cancers spreading in a process called metastasis, or in combination with other therapies to stop tumours coming back again and growing uncontrollably. So, possibly in the future, if we can identify which cells are the cancer stem cells, we could try and target them more in therapies to make sure they are all killed off.

Studying these cancer stem cells could also give us clues about cancer development and how the tumours evade your body’s immune system and keep growing and growing – which in turn could give us clues for designing new cancer therapies.

It might also help us understand the biology of cancer progression. If we can work out how the cancer cells keep reproducing copies of themselves like stem cells do, and creating whole tumours which continuously grow and grow with no control – we could design new cancer therapies to stop this happening and hopefully stop certain cancers spreading!

But all in all, you should support cancer stem cell research as it will inevitably help us as researchers to develop better and more effective and perhaps personalised cancer treatments in the future!

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However – SPOILER ALERT – my research is showing that maybe these cancer stem cells are not as similar to embryonic stem cells in certain aspects as we first thought, which could be really exciting for new cancer treatments! More news on this soon hopefully!

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If anyone wants to find out more about cancer stem cells or embryonic stem cells, please do not be afraid to get in contact with me and ask some questions.

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Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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