An electrical switch for cancer?
A new type of electrically active cell can turn stem cells cancerous from a distance
by transmembrane potential of
remote “instructor cells”.
Image: Disease Models and Mechanisms.
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In a paper published Tuesday (19 October) in Disease Models and Mechanisms, the researchers, led by Michael Levin of Tufts University, describe how, by manipulating the voltage across the cell membranes of these so-called “instructor cells” in frog tadpoles in vivo, they have been able to dictate the fate of the descendants of neural crest stem cells “with exquisite specificity.” De-polarizing the cells led to aggressive, metastatic melanoma. A similar effect was found in human pigment cells in vitro.
The instructor cells themselves lie outside of the neural crest, but appear to communicate with the stem cell population via a long-range signal based on serotonin. Levin told The Scientist that, while the idea that the electrical state of cells is involved in the formation of tumors is not a new one, his study shows that the electrical properties of one type of cell can induce other, distant cells to change their behavior, and might be “a key switch that mediates the stem cell-cancer cell distinction.”