News | 25 February 2020

Stem cells discovered that can cause stomach cancer

Research published in Nature offers new prospects for treatment

For the first time, researchers have discovered stem cells that repair tissue in the stomach but, in the presence of crucial genetic changes, may also cause stomach cancer. The discovery offers new leads in the treatment of stomach tumours. An international team of researchers describes its findings in the renowned scientific journal Nature. Pathologist Prof. Heike Grabsch of the Maastricht UMC+ is one of the authors.

iStockiStockStomach cancer is the fifth most common form of cancer worldwide, but the third most deadly form. There are very few leads for therapy as yet, and there is a great deal of uncertainty about its origins. Tumours are generally caused by a genetic change – a mutation – in the wrong place at the wrong time in the genes of dividing cells. For years now, an international team of scientists has been conducting research into cells that may be involved in the development of stomach cancer. The search now seems to be bearing fruit.

Genetic marker
The researchers discovered a genetic marker called Aquaporin-5 (and abbreviated to AQP5) – a protein located on the surface of stomach cells. By using genetic techniques on mouse models and validation in human stomach tumours, they were able to demonstrate that the protein is selectively present on specific stem cells in the stomach and not on other cells. When in healthy condition, the stem cells can repair and restore tissue. However, the researchers also showed that induced mutations in the stem cells activate the growth of cancer cells.

Important discovery
The researchers demonstrated the presence of stem cells in stomach tumours in which the AQP5 protein was also found. This indicates that the tumour growth is generated from there. 'All in all, these are important discoveries,' says Grabsch. 'We have gained new insights into how tumours can develop and grow in the stomach, and the role that specific stem cells play. We may have also found a new starting point for targeted treatment to prevent and inhibit tumour growth.'

The research was led by scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Medical Biology in Singapore in collaboration with Maastricht UMC+/Maastricht University, the University of Leeds (UK), Kanazawa University (Japan) and other research institutes in Singapore.