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The Big Bang model of human colon cancer

Like the Big Bang model of the formation of the universe, the Big Bang model of human colon cancer deduces tumor conditions in the past based on current data. Instead of cosmic radiation, the cancer model uses genomic data from a mature tumor to infer how it grew, starting from when it was composed of a small number of mutated cells.

Christina Curtis, PhD, a recent addition to Stanford's School of Medicine, and her collaborators at the University of Southern California developed the model, which was published online this week in Nature Genetics.

Testing the Big Bang model confirmed that most detectable differences in tumors come from early disordered growth patterns of cells.

As I wrote in a story about the Big Bang model:

Using an array of genomic techniques, Curtis and her team profiled colorectal tumors at multiple spatial scales, ranging from single cells to tumor glands consisting of fewer than 10,000 cells, as well as "bulk" tumor fragments that were taken from opposite sides of a full-grown tumor. These methods provided a panoramic and high-resolution view of how cells within a tumor were different and how tumors from the same patient differed from one another. From the genomic data, the researchers reconstructed a tumor growth history. A tumor growth history can be thought of like a slide-show at a graduation party, which starts off with baby pictures and ends with images of the young adult. The Big Bang model describes how a tumor evolves from a few thousand cells to a full-grown tumor composed of billions of cells.

Carcinomas had disordered growth histories -- identifiable even when the tumors were just a few thousand cells -- and benign adenomas had ordered growth histories. Curtis told me that these findings suggest that some tumors are "born to be bad" and the malignant potential of a tumor is determined early. She added that disordered growth patterns identified in emerging tumors could potentially serve as a biomarker, enabling early detection of cancerous growths.

Kimberlee D'Ardenne is a writing intern in the medical school's Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previously: Stanford researchers explore new ways of identifying colon cancer, Bacterial balance in gut tied to colon cancer risk, Study shows evidence-based card eliminates racial disparity in colon-cancer survival rates and Researchers explore colonoscopy's effect on the incidence of colorectal cancer
Image by Atilla Szűcs

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