Aug 16 2007
Geneticists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new cell culturing medium that does something amazing: It allows human cells to transform into so-called 'queen' cancer cells, cancer cells that reproduce rapidly and produce mutants that become the actual tumours. Think of them as stem cells that specialize in producing cancers as we normally think of them. Not all malignant cells are capable of doing this, most just sit there and use up resources and oxygen and reproduce, but don't actually break off and spread to other parts of the body. This germ line of cells came about as a result of research into cellular suspension culturing media (the liquid that cells grow in while in vitro) for a particular kind of cancer cell that hadn't been successfully cultured before. The cells were transformed into cancer cells through the insertion of a number of genes known to be involved in malignant activity. What wasn't expected was how vigorously the cells would reproduce - mice injected with as few as 100 of the cells succumbed to monsterous cancer growth in mere days.
The implications for genetic engineering and hybridoma research (there's an awesome page about this field of genetics over here at the Rochester Institute of Technology) are fantastic: Now there can be other germ lines of cells that can be worked with using standard bioengineering techniques. Of course, saying that isn't to denigrate research into finding cures for cancer as a whole: These cells can give medical science insight into how tumors develop, how they spread, how they utilize resources, and how they grow, all while in the lab. This is an unprecedented opportunity to develop new treatments for cancer in humans, and perhaps find ways of hacking old ones to work on different sorts of cancers.