Mitotic spindles give cancer clues

Scientists working at the University of Dundee have discovered a form of stem cell activity that might help lead to the early identification of cancer.

The new research reveals differences between the way stem cells behave in normal tissue and their activity in tissue that is pre-cancerous.

The research team, led by Professor Inke Näthke and funded by the Bobby Moore Fund for Cancer Research UK, examined the behaviour of mitotic spindles – structures that separate genetic material during the key process of cell division.

Using state-of-the-art imaging techniques, they generated three-dimensional pictures of mitotic spindles in intestinal tissue. They found the spindles behaved differently in normal, healthy tissue and in tissue with a single mutation associated with bowel (colorectal) cancer.

‘The process we were investigating is called asymmetric cell division,’ said Professor Näthke, a Principal Investigator in the Dundee Cancer Centre. ‘The importance of asymmetric divisions for stem cell function and maintenance is well established in the developing nervous system and the skin. However, its role in gut tissue and its role in helping to produce tumours are still debated.

‘We developed an imaging technique that permits the visualization of three-dimensional aspects of tissue architecture to identify differences in stem and non-stem cells in the intestinal tract. Using this technique, we found that this process of asymmetric division in stem cells is lost in tissue that gives rise to cancers in the gut, so these spindles behave differently in pre-cancerous tissue.

‘In the healthy tissue this process works well. In the precancerous tissue it seems to be compromised, which is an important sign, as this tissue otherwise appears normal.

‘This is important as it may have implications in developing techniques for identifying pre-cancerous tissue at an early stage, when it still appears normal, giving clinicians a chance to catch the disease in the early stages of development. It might also have implications for the types of treatment that should be considered.’

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