American scientists have created prostate cancer in the laboratory by genetically altering human stem cells.
The ability to produce cancer “from scratch” is expected to boost efforts to find agents that combat the disease.
Scientists believe most cancers are driven by “rogue” stem cells – the immature “mother” cells that develop into different kinds of tissue.
Knowing what makes a stem cell turn cancerous can help researchers identify the root causes of cancer.
One of the hallmarks of stem cells is that they self-renew, which also makes their DNA vulnerable to collecting mistakes in the genetic code. When this results in uncontrolled cell growth, it leads to cancer.
Scientists have now duplicated this process in the laboratory using human prostate cells.
A US team led by Dr Owen Witte, from the University of California at Los Angeles, broke apart prostate tissue to extract stem cells.
The scientists then engineered specific genetic changes into the stem cells to generate cancer.
The technique could assist the “fine tuning” of new anti-cancer drugs, said Dr Witte.
Cells grown in the laboratory from tumours hide what made them cancerous in the first place, he pointed out. Drugs that stop their growth may not have the same effect on tumours driven by different gene mutations.
Starting with prostate stem cells made it a lot easier to target specific genetic defects.
“Here you can pre-programme the genetic buffet and then evaluate a compound in the face of those specific changes,” said Dr Witte, who presented his research at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California.
Dr Helen Rippon, head of research management at The Prostate Cancer Charity, said: “This research describes a novel and innovative way to create prostate cancer tissue in a petri dish using stem cells taken from the human prostate.
“This is an important finding because much basic scientific research into the underlying causes of prostate cancer and potential new drug targets relies entirely on having good models of the disease that can be used in the lab.
“These models must be as accurate a reflection of prostate tumours in the human body as possible.
“This stem cell-derived human prostate cancer model could have several applications that would speed up research into the disease.
“First, it could be an ideal tool for testing new drug treatments, reducing the use of animals.
“Second, by examining what turns the normal prostate stem cells into cancer causing ones, this model could bring new insights into the drivers of prostate tumour development and growth.
“This research is still at an early stage and has yet to be fully published, so it is too early to say whether this technique will be widely adopted. However, the authors are to be applauded for taking such an ambitious and innovative approach to developing a new tool for prostate cancer research.”