Research Highlight

Why do some cells become tumorous?

doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.73 Published online 30 May 2013

When cancer-causing mutations strike our cells, why do only some cell types turn into tumors and not all? Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur have found in the tiny fruit fly Drosophila that cells on top of the developmental hierarchy are the most susceptible to tumor formation1.

Their findings could have far reaching implications in cancer diagnosis and therapy.

The researchers took advantage of the evolutionary conservation of cancer causing genes in Drosophila. They probed whether cells in a lineage hierarchy of developing wings of the fruit fly were equally susceptible to cancerous transformations.

Pradip Sinha (far right) with his co-workers at IITK.

Their finding showed that cells at the apex (primitive stage) of a lineage hierarchy displayed a ready propensity for neoplasia (tumor formation). Alongside this, they found that the cancer-resistant cells in the developing wings or eyes of the fruit fly could also be transformed if genetically reversed to more primitive cell states.

Conversely, cancerous transformation was arrested by genetically suppressing their switch to primitive cell states.

"Thus, one of the critical characteristics of cells giving rise to cancers is their capacity to switch to a primitive cell state," lead researcher Pradip Sinha told Nature India.

The researchers predict several implications of the findings since essential cancer mechanisms are conserved in both fruit flies and human. The most interesting would be to harness Drosophila genetics to identify cellular factors that contribute to carcinogenesis and target them therapeutically, Sinha adds.


  1. Khan, S. J. et al. Epithelial neoplasia in Drosophila entails switch to primitive cell states. P. Natl. Acad. Sci. (2013) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1212513110