September 22, 2008

Flatworms Aid Scientists Studying Cancer

A U.S. study shows a key genetic pathway for cell growth and division is similar in both humans and flatworms, or planarians.

Planarians, normally living in freshwater, are known for their ability to regenerate. A planarian cut into 200 pieces can generate 200 new individuals.

Now research suggests the planarian can help scientists understand the basis of human development and disease.

Scientists at the University of Utah and the Forsyth Institute at Harvard University report planaria contain a gene highly similar to the human gene PTEN, one of the most frequently mutated genes in human cancer. They found PTEN was present in many planaria cell types, including stem cells. Additionally, disruption of PTEN pathways in the cell resulted in abnormal growths, drastic changes in body shape and, eventually, death.

The scientists said their findings demonstrate planaria are a new animal model to use in researching the biology of human stem cells and cancer cells.

The study appears in the September-October issue of the new research journal Disease Models & Mechanisms.