Ways to identify and isolate pre-tumour liver cancer progenitor cells discovered

Washington: Researchers including an Indian-origin scientist have for the first time isolated and characterized the progenitor cells that eventually give rise to malignant hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) tumours, which is the most common form of liver cancer.

The researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine found ways to identify and isolate the HCC progenitor cells (HcPC) long before actual tumours were apparent.

The study's lead author Michael Karin, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology and Pathology, and colleagues reported that HcPC take form within dysplastic or abnormal lesions often found in damaged or cirrhotic livers.

Study co-author Debanjan Dhar said that it was never established whether dysplastic lesions are just a regenerative (healing) response of the liver triggered by tissue damage or are actually pre-malignant lesions that harbour tumour progenitor cells.

Dhar said that their study showed that HcPC are likely derived from dysplastic lesions, can progress to malignant tumours and further demonstrate that the malignant progression of HcPC to full-blown liver cancer depends upon the microenvironment that surrounds them.

The researchers were able to characterize HcPC based on several biomarkers that distinguish them from normal cells. They also identified cellular signalling pathways activated in HcPC that are critical "to their malignant potential."

The findings may have profound implications for treating HCC which is difficult to diagnose and treat, with poor prognoses for patients.

Dhar said identifying premalignant lesions in high-risk patients based on HcPC markers would allow for earlier detection and therapeutic interventions.

The study is published in journal Cell.

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