Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Researchers Develop Method That Converts Aggressive Cancer Cells into Healthy Cells in Children
If further research confirms these findings, clinical laboratory identification of cancer cells could lead to new treatments for certain childhood cancers
Can cancer cells be changed into normal healthy cells? According to molecular biologists at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in Long Island the answer is, apparently, yes. At least for certain types of cancer. And clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists may play a key role in identifying these specific cancer cells and then guiding physicians in selecting the most appropriate therapies.
The cancer cells in question are called rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) and are “particularly aggressive,” according to ScienceAlert. Generally, and most sadly, the cancer primarily affects children below the age of 18. It begins in skeletal muscle, mutates throughout the body, and is often deadly.
“Treatment usually involves chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation procedures. Now, new research by scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory demonstrates differentiation therapy as a new treatment option for RMS,” Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News (GEN) reported.
For those young cancer patients, this new research could become a lifesaving therapy as further studies validate the approach, which has been in development for six years.
The CSHL researchers published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) titled, “Myo-Differentiation Reporter Screen Reveals NF-Y as An Activator of PAX3–FOXO1 in Rhabdomyosarcoma.”
“Every successful medicine has its origin story,” said Christopher Vakoc, MD, PhD (above), a molecular biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who led the team that develop the method for converting cancer cells into healthy cells. “And research like this is the soil from which new drugs are born.” As these findings are confirmed, it may be that clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists will be needed to identify the specific cancer cells in patients once treatment is developed. (Photo copyright: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.)
According to an article in the Chinese Journal of Cancer on the National Library of Medicine website, “Differentiation therapy is based on the concept that a neoplasm is a differentiation disorder [aka, differentiation syndrome] or a dedifferentiation disease. In response to the induction of differentiation, tumor cells can revert to normal or nearly normal cells, thereby altering their malignant phenotype and ultimately alleviating the tumor burden or curing the malignant disease without damaging normal cells.”
Vakoc and his team first pursued differentiation therapy to treat Ewing sarcoma, a pediatric cancer that forms in soft tissues or in bone. In January 2023, GEN reported that the researchers had discovered that “Ewing sarcoma could potentially be stopped by developing a drug that blocks the protein known as ETV6.”
“This protein is present in all cells. But when you perturb the protein, most normal cells don’t care,” Vakoc told GEN. “The process by which the sarcoma forms turns this ETV6 molecule—this relatively innocuous, harmless protein that isn’t doing very much—into something that’s now controlling a life-death decision of the tumor cell.”
The researchers discovered that when ETV6 was blocked in lab-grown Ewing sarcoma cells, the cells became normal, healthy cells. “The sarcoma cell reverts back into being a normal cell again,” they told GEN. “The shape of the cell changes. The behavior of the cells changes. A lot of the cells will arrest their growth. It’s really an explosive effect.”
The scientists then turned their attention on Rhabdomyosarcoma to see if they could elicit a similar response.
“In this study, we developed a high-throughput genetic screening method to identify genes that cause rhabdomyosarcoma cells to differentiate into normal muscle. We used this platform to discover the protein NF-Y as an important molecule that contributes to rhabdomyosarcoma biology. CRISPR-based genetic targeting of NF-Y converts rhabdomyosarcoma cells into differentiated muscle, and we reveal the mechanism by which this occurs,” they wrote in PNAS.
“Scientists have successfully induced rhabdomyosarcoma cells to transform into normal, healthy muscle cells. It’s a breakthrough that could see the development of new therapies for the cruel disease, and it could lead to similar breakthroughs for other types of human cancers,” ScienceAlert reported.
“The cells literally turn into muscle,” Vakoc told ScienceAlert. “The tumor loses all cancer attributes. They’re switching from a cell that just wants to make more of itself to cells devoted to contraction. Because all its energy and resources are now devoted to contraction, it can’t go back to this multiplying state,” he added.
Promising New Therapies for Multiple Cancers in Children
Differentiation therapy as a treatment option gained popularity when “scientists noticed that leukemia cells are not fully mature, similar to undifferentiated stem cells that haven’t yet fully developed into a specific cell type. Differentiation therapy forces those cells to continue their development and differentiate into specific mature cell types,” ScienceAlert noted.
Vakoc and his team had previously “effectively reversed the mutation of the cancer cells that emerge in Ewing sarcoma.” It was those promising results from differentiation therapy that inspired the team to push further and attempt success with rhabdomyosarcoma.
Their results are “a key step in the development of differentiation therapy for rhabdomyosarcoma and could accelerate the timeline for which such treatments are expected,” ScienceAlert commented.
Developing New Therapies for Deadly Cancers
Vakoc and his team are considering differentiation therapy’s potential effectiveness for other types of cancer as well. They note that “their technique, now demonstrated on two different types of sarcoma, could be applicable to other sarcomas and cancer types since it gives scientists the tools needed to find how to cause cancer cells to differentiate,” ScienceAlert reported.
“Since many forms of human sarcoma exhibit a defect in cell differentiation, the methodology described here might have broad relevance for the investigation of these tumors,” the researchers wrote in PNAS.
Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologist play a critical role in identifying many types of cancers. And though any treatment that comes from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory research is years away, it illustrates how new insights into the basic dynamics of cancer cells is helping researchers develop effective therapies for attacking those cancers.
—Kristin Althea O’Connor