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Leftover Embryonic Cells Connect Gastric Reflux and Cancer

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It turns out, the originating source of some cancers is leftover embryonic cells found in every adult. Findings of a new study by American and Asian scientists may turn general perceptions about certain cancers on its head.

The general assumption in cancer development is that normal cells grow out of control and become hazardous. But for deadly esophageal cancers, new research traces the precursor to these leftover embryonic cells triggered by gastric reflux disease, also called GERD or “chronic heartburn”.

“A lot of cancers you can do little about, and currently new drugs are approved based on their ability to extend life by one or two months,” said the study’s senior author Frank McKeon of Harvard Medical School and the Genome Institute of Singapore. “Focus on cancer precursors may be our best hope for medicine. Here, we are looking at a cancer precursor that is present in all of us.”

Some people with GERD have a greater risk of developing esophageal cancer. These patients often have Barrett's esophagus, a condition in which intestinal-like cells appear in the esophagus. Esophageal cancers are difficult to treat. As such, gastric cancer death rates have remained relatively unchanged over the past 30 years, and gastric cancer continues to be the second leading cause of cancer-related death globally, according to a 2005 study published in the Annuals of Surgery.

“It's not clear that the embryonic stem cell precursors have any real purpose,” says study author Wa Xian. “Methods to rid the body of those cells may therefore be the easiest and most cost-effective way to stop the disease before it even starts, particularly for those at the greatest risk.” The study is published in the June 24, 2011 edition of Cell.

The prevailing theory has been that the abnormal cells seen in Barrett's esophagus arise as the normal squamous stem cells are damaged in response to acid-reflux and transform themselves into new, intestine-like cells. Using a mouse model of chronic acid-reflux disease, Xian and McKeon now show that conclusion may be debunked.

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