The question sounds more like sociology than biology: What would happen if you could take a cell gone bad — a cancer cell — bring it back to its infancy, before it turned to the dark side, and let it grow up again? Would it become cancerous again? What if you raised it in a different environment? Stanford Professor Ravi Majeti, MD, PhD, and his colleagues posed this simple question about a leukemia cell. And the answer they got gave them a new set of tools for studying leukemia and designing better therapies against it.
Using a ten year-old technology and some tricks they recently discovered in the lab, Majeti and then postdoctoral fellow Mark Chao, MD, PhD, became the first to reset a human leukemia cell to a nearly embryonic state as an induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell.
What they found was that if they raised this cell in an environment that led it to become a heart cell or neuron, it was totally normal. But if they raised it in an environment that led it to go back to being a blood cell, it turned cancerous once again.
As Majeti remarked in our news story, “This was super surprising to us. What this tells us is that context matters. Those leukemic gene mutations only cause cancer when they exist in the context of a blood cell.”
More important for the long term, the ability to take a single leukemia cell, turn it back into an iPS cell and grow it up into many identical leukemia cells may give them tools to study leukemia and to test how well anti-cancer drugs work against leukemias with particular gene mutations.