The smallest cancer patient ever
A team of scientists from Kiel University has discovered the mechanics of tumour growth. By caring for the tiny and ancient animal Hydra, former Humboldt fellow Alexander Klimovich is looking for ways of dealing with cancer.
Dr Alexander Klimovich has to take extra care of his scientific objects: Hydra suffering from cancer. With their help he aims to understand the mechanics of the disease. Foto: Ann-Christine Wimber
At Kiel University it is cared for and pampered by Dr Alexander Klimovich, former Humboldt fellow and now as sistant to Professor Thomas Bosch at the Zoological Institute. The young scientist from Russia takes care of the animals in order to learn more about the origin and formation of tumours. Hydra is the ideal model object – in perfect lab conditions it seems to neither age nor die. And it is quite successful in surviving: It has been on earth for 500 million years. “Compared to a healthy Hydra, the animals carrying tumours are gravely sick, and need intensive care to keep them alive”, Klimovich declares.
The room in which the Hydra population is kept is cold. Klimovich has to wear a sweater – warm drinks are not allowed, they might spill and spoil the scientific surroundings. Hydra lives in a special test tube, inactive until some food passes by. Then they grab the tiny krill which Klimovich feeds them with a pipette, swimming among them. The cancer patients need to be fed more often than the healthy population. Also, Klimovich needs to check regularly if the water temperature is just right. It is not allowed to be too warm or too cold.
This extra care is essential, as the patients present a milestone in cancer research: “For the last 50 years there have been intensive debates as to whether animals other than humans can naturally develop tumors. With time tumors were observed in monkeys, dogs, birds, but they remained still unreported in other invertebrate, simpler animals”, the scientist from St. Petersburg explains.
Hydra is a very good test object. The animals have a unique way of reproducing: They produce “buds” that then detach themselves from their parental (mother) organism and grow to be adults and “bud”-bearers themselves. Therefore, an abnormality gets passed on to the next generation; all members of one “family” growing from the single sick animal showed the same tumorous growth.
While investigating tumour-bearing Hydras and the regulation of their tissue growth, Klimovich and his colleagues discovered a large quantity of accumulated stem cells. “When undertaking more detailed molecular analyses of the tumour, we found a gene that becomes dramatically active in tumour tissue. The defective cells seem not to have the regular programmed cell death. Therefore, they are not eliminated, but just pile up”, the 29-year old researcher explains. “Similar events occur in certain cancers in humans”.
The findings are a breakthrough, insofar as scientists now know that cancer is not a development of modern times. It is as ancient as multicellular life it self. “We have learned about the universal, fundamental mechanics that cause cancer”, Klimovich states. He and his fellow scientists will now try to find the cause for the tumour cell hyperactivity. “Since we will never root out this disease, we have to find a way of preventing the hyperactivity in certain cells being triggered, or of shutting it down.” That still has a long way to go. But understanding the mechanics of tumour formation is a first step.
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