All cancers may be triggered by a rare rogue stem cell that has learned how to cheat death, research suggests.
Scientists have dubbed it the “Cell of Origin” and believe the discovery could be a turning point in the battle against cancer.
Lead researcher Professor Michael P Lisanti, from the University of Salford, said: “If, as we believe, we have found the beginning of the road, we may have to press the reset button on how we treat cancer with drugs.”
The team isolated the most energetic cells in a series of cultured cell lines derived from breast tumours.
The most dynamic cancer stem cells, making up just 0.2% of the total population, had special characteristics and significantly higher-than-average energy levels.
Surprisingly, these cells also showed strong evidence of senescence – a process linked to ageing that causes cells near the end of their lives to “freeze” and stop multiplying.
“They displayed hallmarks of senescence but are no longer senescent, they have broken out of senescence,” said Prof Lisanti.
The “mother” cancer cells may use antioxidants and energy from mitochondria – cellular power plants – to redirect their fate, the scientists believe.
Prof Lisanti said: “Scientists talk about cancer being caused by dying cells coming back to life, so-called ‘zombie-cells’.
“We now see it is more dramatic than that. In fact, it could be more accurately described as a prison break.
“In other words, this origin cell breaks out of line and runs amok, multiplying malignant cells and creating a tumour.”
He added: “It feels like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, and it crucially gives us a new window on cancer and how we might stop it.”
There is increasing evidence that the deadly spread of cancer, known as metastasis, is caused by cancer stem cells fuelled by mitochondria, said the scientists.
Yet most chemotherapy targeted “bulk” cancer cells and some treatments even made cancer stem cells proliferate more.
The research is reported in the journal Frontiers in Oncology.