Developmental biologist Dr. Alberto Rosellió-Díez, from Medicine Institute at Monash University and Dr. Isaac S. Kohane, from MIT-Harvard Division of health Sciense, have been trying to understand how tissue growth, during embryonic development, is related to the cancerous tumors. Studies post in the Scientific American recently linked these two processes together stating that “cancer cells are the same programmed genetic instructions active during various stages of embryonic and fetal development.” Kohane believes that by observing these growth processes, they will be able to have a better understanding of how embryonic development contributes to cancer growth later on in life.
First, to better understand how genetic instructions program tumors to grow in adults, Díez and his team needed to study tissue growth during the embryonic development. In order to do this the team created a model in mice, using prior knowledge of cell modification, to come up with a mechanism that inhibited cell growth. Using this mechanism, the team injected the rear limb of a mouse with a growth inhibitor and watched to see how the rest of the embryo reacted. During this process the rear limb stopped growing and the rest fetus reacted by slowing down its growth as well. It turned out that when the scientists stopped the rear limb from growing, the placenta also reacted by signaling the other limbs to stop growing as well, allowing the slower one to catch up. The placenta, which acts basically as an immune-endocrine organ, mediated the growth process of the other limbs allowing for symmetrical growth of all the limbs. The growth inhibitor allowed the scientists to see for the first time how tissue growth is turned on and off by instructions, programmed during embryonic development. An article in Scientific American discusses these findings in further detail. The results obtained by Díez and his team seem to be promising and they may even help doctors like Kohane explain the effects that these embryonic instructions have on cancer. Kohane, who is currently working with tumors, discovered that gene signatures during the third trimester mirrored growth rates in cancer. Among some of these tumors that exhibited these signatures were ardenocarcinoma, T cell lymphomas, and thyroid cancer. Using these signatures and the research from embryonic development, Kohane hopes to be able to see early warning signs of cancer. Tumors, which are generic terms for neoplasms usually grow rapidly and are able to invade surrounding tissue. Scientists and doctors have observed a remarkable similarity between the behavior of embryos and tumors. Lloyd J. Old, a chairman of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, stated “If you’ve ever seen the trophoblast invading the uterus, it invades, spreads, creates a blood supply. It also suppresses the maternal immune system… All of those are characteristics of cancer.” These new discoveries and observations have given us a much better understanding of embryonic development and its relationship to cancer. However, the research is still in its infancy stage and there is still a lot of speculation on how things work, but with breakthroughs like Dr. Rosellió-Díez and Kohane's research, it might not be long until we can treat cancer much more effectively.