Research Models
Stacy Matthews Branch, DVM, PhD

Tool Helps Scientists See How Cancer Cells Revert to Stem Cells

Experiment opens the door to understanding how cancer stem cells hide in the body 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, cancer is one of the top 5 causes of death in developed countries. Although many advances have been achieved regarding treatment options for different types of cancer, preventing recurrence and bolstering long-term survival in patients with advanced forms of cancer remains a challenge. The persistence of cancer stem cells in the body, which are resistant to conventional treatments, appears to be an important factor leading to cancer recurrence.

In order to study how cancer cells remain in the body, a collaboration of researchers at Hokkaido University in Japan and the National Cancer Center Research Institute developed a means to mimic the biological tumor microenvironment. They developed a double-network hydrogel consisting of a network of two chemicals and a high water volume in order to create an environment similar to living biological tissues. Using the hydrogel to study the behavior of different types of cancer cells, the scientists found that differentiated cancer cells were able to revert to cancer stem cells within the hydrogel.

The research team studied six human cancer cell lines (brain, colon, bladder, lung, uterine, and sarcoma cancer cells). The cancer cells formed spheroids within the hydrogel and expressed cancer stem cell markers (Sox2, Oct3/4, and Nanog) within 24 hours of culture. The study results showed that the hydrogel induced tyrosine kinase phosphorylation and that a platelet-derived growth factor receptor eliminated the cancer stem cells induced in the hydrogel. Additional study results showed that calcium channel receptors and the protein osteopontin were crucial for the regulation of cancer stem cell induction for the cultured brain cancer cells. Furthermore, tumors formed when the brain cancer cells cultured on the hydrogel were intracranially transplanted into immunodeficient mice brains.

Population of cancer stem cells limiting for research

Targeting cancer stem cells for cancer treatment development is beneficial, but these cells are found in small numbers within the body, which makes them challenging to identify. Therefore, the development of the double-network hydrogel provides a means to effectively study the mechanism of cancer stem cell development and their role in cancer recurrence. This information is vital to develop safe and effective anti–cancer stem cell drugs for application in personalized medical therapies.

The research was conducted using stem cells that were studied to see how they reacted to a new tool. Because of this hydrogel, we can now study how cancerous stem cells hide away in the body.


Hydrogel mimics body tissue to turn cancer cells back into stem cells. (2021). Retrieved 11 May 2021, from

This article was written by free-lance science writer Nancy Andon, MSc. It originally appeared on a blog managed by HemaCare, which Charles River acquired in 2020. HemaCare sells biological products such as T cells, stem cells, bone marrow, plasma, and other medical products.