Scientists have long known that cancers often spread to the spine, but they haven't known why. A new discovery may provide an answer—and point to ways to keep cancerous cells in check, reports Science News. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine report in the journal Nature that they've discovered a new type of stem cell in the spine, called a vertebral skeletal stem cell. The cells are seen as crucial to bone formation, and the more intriguing part of the study relates to cancer. As Mark Johnson of the Washington Post puts it, the cells "make a protein that acts as a 'come here' signal to tumor cells." That could explain why, for example, breast cancer so often spreads to the spine.
"This is a major advance in our understanding of bone metastasis," Xiang Zhang, a cancer biologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who wasn't involved with the study tells Science News. And it could also suggest avenues for treatment. "We predict this discovery will lead to the targeting of these cells to disrupt the function and ultimately reduce the spread of cancer to the spine," study co-author Matthew B. Greenblatt tells the Post. The discovery, however, has implications beyond cancer, per a news release from Weill Cornell Medicine. It could also shed light on spinal disorders and on the bone-weakening disease osteoporosis and lead to new orthopedic treatments. The research team is now exploring ways to block the aforementioned "come here" signal in regard to tumor cells. (More stem cells stories.)