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Scientists Discover the Secrets of Gut Stem Cells

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Scientists have been studying stem cells in the gut in an effort to understand how they behave so they can invent new treatments for bowel cancer. This is important because cancer cells are becoming resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy normally given to try and kill cancer.

Scientists previously thought that there was a hierarchy of cells within the gut and only a few were able to produce the different stem cells in the gut. The stem cells role is to make the cells responsible for absorption – a vital function.

But new research shows there is no hierarchy and that all the cells have an equal chance of producing more stem cells. When one ‘dies’ it is replaced by another.

The gut wall is very important and a part of the immune system and it is constantly dividing cells, re-growing and re-generating and it is able to do this because it is supported by a group of stem cells.

Dr. Doug Winton from Cambridge Research Institute, UK, said “We’ve shown for the first time how the population of stem cells is maintained in the gut and essentially it is a random process with no predetermined fate for the stem cells. This research is a great example of collaborative research – we’ve brought together biologists and physicists to answer questions about how stem cells divide - and it’s through these type of collaborations we hope to answer more questions about stem cells and their links to cancer.”

In a healthy gut, stem cells will multiply to maintain the lining of the gut, but sometimes a fault occurs and these stem cells become cancer cells. Dr. Lesley Walker is hopeful that the research will one day help future cancer patients.

“This basic biology research could one day lead to real benefits for patients. Cancer stem cells are more resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy than the cells that make up the bulk of a tumour, so understanding more about how they behave could lead to better treatments for bowel cancer.”

Source: Lopez-Garcia et al. Intestinal stem cell replacement follows a pattern of neutral drift (2010) Science.

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