4 things to know about the mechanism that may underlie GI, other cancers

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that regardless of organ type, mature cells revert to stem cell-like behavior in response to certain types of injury, increasing the risk of developing cancer.

When they begin to divide again, mature cells in the stomach, pancreas, liver and kidney all activate the same genes and undergo the same process, which could indicate that cancer initiation is much more similar across organs than previously thought.

Here are four things to know about paligenosis, the process by which mature cells begin dividing again.

1. According to senior investigator and professor of medicine in the gastroenterology department Jason Mills, MD, PhD, paligenosis appears to be similar to apoptosis — programmed cell death, a normal part of an organism's growth and development — in that it seems to happen the same way in every cell.

2. When the "war on cancer" began in the 1970s, scientists believed all cancers were similar. They may not have been entirely wrong, Dr. Mills said, as "this study suggests the way that cells become proliferative again is similar across many different organs."

3. When damaged by infection or trauma, mature cells can revert back to a stem-cell state in which they divide repeatedly. Those cells activate the same genes to break down the mature cells and enable them to divide again.

The researchers saw a massive increase in the activity of genes associated with cell degradation. The cell's growth pathway then senses that degradation and releases nutrients to activate cell growth pathways which allow mature cells to proliferate.

4. The researchers believe that this could lead to new targets for cancer treatment, as the factors that initiate tumors could be the same in multiple organs. "We can imagine therapies that interfere with cancer initiation in a more global way, regardless of where that cancer may appear in the body," Dr. Mills said.

Here is the study in The EMBO Journal.

More articles on gastroenterology:

GI leader to know: Dr. Loren Laine of Yale School of Medicine

Dr. Shirley Pua joins Visalia Medical Clinic — 4 insights

5 most read GI/endoscopy stories: Feb. 19-23

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