“Good” Cells Gone “Bad”

From Harvard Magazine:

Scadden 2 The good boy who turns to crime because he lives in a bad neighborhood is a common fixture of popular culture. Now that narrative has a newly discovered analogy in the world of cell biology. Professor of stem cell and regenerative biology and Jordan professor of medicine David Scadden and colleagues have demonstrated for the first time that changes in an environmental niche can actually cause disease. “Good” cells can turn “bad” in a bad neighborhood—leading to cancer.

In cancer, a “single cell goes awry,” explains Scadden. This is thought to happen when the cell accumulates a series of genetic injuries that break down the internal mechanisms controlling such events as how many times it can divide and how long it lives. The cancer then creates daughter cells that can travel and establish new colonies—but not just anywhere. Different kinds of cancers have affinities for colonizing particular organs: prostate cancer goes to bone, breast cancer to brain and lung, pancreatic cancer to liver, for example. This has led scientists to try to define the facilitating properties of those particular surrounding environments. Scadden has studied the importance of environmental niches in determining cell fate for years. He has shown, for example, that characteristics of a bone microenvironment can determine what type of cell a blood stem cell (in bone marrow) will become. But the idea that the environment could actually be involved in the initiation of a new cancer was not well defined until his recent discovery, which was published in Nature earlier this year.

More here.