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Rogue gene hijacks stem cells to jumpstart human cancer

A gene thought to be responsible for initiating human cancer has been identified by researchers at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

The study - published online today (9 November)  in the journal Cancer Research - paves the way for developing early cancer diagnostic tests, and finding new treatments that prevent or stop the spread of cancer cells at an early stage.

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Dr Muy-Teck Teh
Dr Muy-Teck Teh

Led by Dr Muy-Teck Teh of the Institute of Dentistry at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry researchers have shown that a gene called FOXM1 exploits the inherent self-renewal property of stem cells causing excessive cell proliferation. 

Using adult human stem cells isolated from mouth tissues the team demonstrated that normal stem cells engineered in the lab to express abnormal levels of FOXM1 gene, triggered excessive cell growth within a 3D tissue culture model system set up to mimic human tissue regeneration in the laboratory. 

The 3D tissue culture system allows scientists to perform research on manipulated human cells without provoking ethical issues associated with human or animal subjects.

Stem cells expressing normal levels of the FOXM1 gene did not cause excessive cell growth.  The abnormal growth triggered by FOXM1 resulted in a condition called hyperplasia - an early hallmark of pre-cancer. This is thought to represent the very first step of a series of abnormal molecular events leading to cancer formation.

Dr Teh said: "Now we know that FOXM1 plays a key role in cancer initiation we aim to translate our basic findings into clinically useful molecular diagnostic tests to detect cancer growth at early stages. Furthermore, understanding the origin of cancer initiation may unveil new research opportunities for finding effective anti-tumour drugs that stop or prevent cancer at its earliest incipient stage."

The study was co-funded by the Wellcome Trust VIP award, Medical Research Council PhD studentship, the Institute of Dentistry at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary, University of London and the Norwegian Research Council.


'Induction of Human Epithelial Stem/Progenitor Expansion by FOXM1' is published advanced online on 9 November 2010 in Cancer Research

Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry offers international levels of excellence in research and teaching while serving a population of unrivalled diversity amongst which cases of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, TB, oral disease and cancers are prevalent, within east London and the wider Thames Gateway. Through partnership with our linked trusts, notably Barts and The London NHS Trust, and our associated University Hospital trusts – Homerton, Newham, Whipps Cross and Queen’s – the School’s research and teaching is informed by an exceptionally wide ranging and stimulating clinical environment.

At the heart of the School’s mission lies world class research, the result of a focused programme of recruitment of leading research groups from the UK and abroad and a £100 million investment in state-of-the-art facilities. Research is focused on translational research, cancer, cardiology, clinical pharmacology, inflammation, infectious diseases, stem cells, dermatology, gastroenterology, haematology, diabetes, neuroscience, surgery and dentistry.

The School is nationally and internationally recognised for research in these areas, reflected in the £40 million it attracts annually in research income. Its fundamental mission, with its partner NHS Trusts, and other partner organisations such as CRUK, is to ensure that that the best possible clinical service is underpinned by the very latest developments in scientific and clinical teaching, training and research.

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