Scientists create human cancer cellsBMJ 1999; 319 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7206.335a (Published 07 August 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:335
Scientists have succeeded in genetically transforming normal human cells into cancer cells, a feat that eluded the research community for years. The work yields fresh insights into the process of carcinogenesis and may lead to new anticancer treatments (Nature 1999;400:401-2). Although re-searchers have converted normal human cells into cancer cells before, this is the first time that a precise molecular recipe has been applied to cause that transformation.
In the past, cancer cell lines were created through transfection with a virus or via physical and chemical manipulation, such as exposure to carcinogens and irradiation. These processes were random and equivalent to a sledgehammer approach, inducing so many changes in the cells that it was impossible to determine which ones were necessary to cause cancer.
The new research, led by Drs William Hahn and Robert Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, relied on the observation that rodent cell lines are easily converted to cancer cells with the introduction of a few oncogenes. In contrast, human cells are relatively resistant to this change. Further investigation led to the realisation that most mouse cells express the enzyme telomerase whereas most human cells do not.
Telomerase is the enzyme responsible for maintaining the telomere, the sequence of DNA that caps each chromosome. The telomere serves as an internal time clock, shortening with successive replications and cell divisions.
Commenting on the work, Dr Hahn said: “One important conclusion from this study is that there are not an infinite number of cellular changes separating cancer cells from normal cells but that tumour development is a finite process.” The experiment raises several lines of continuing research. For example, assays for telomerase as a marker of malignant transformation may be developed. Telomerase inhibitors may be produced that might serve as an anticancer agent.
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