Gastric carcinoma is one of the most common causes of cancer-related deaths, primarily because most patients present at an advanced stage of the disease. The main cause of this cancer is the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which chronically infects about half of all humans. However, unlike tumor viruses, bacteria do not deposit transforming genes in their host cells and how bacteria are able to cause cancer has so far remained a mystery. An interdisciplinary research team at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, in collaboration with researchers at the Standord University School of Medicine, has now discovered that the bacterium sends stem cell renewal in the stomach into overdrive - and stem cell turnover has been suspected by many scientists to play a role in the development of cancer. By showing that the stomach contains two different stem cell types, which respond differently to the same driver signal, the scientists have uncovered a new mechanism of tissue plasticity. It allows tuning tissue renewal in response to bacterial infection. While it has long been recognized that certain viruses can cause cancer by inserting oncogenes into the host cell DNA, the fact that some bacteria can also cause cancer has been slower to emerge and much harder to prove.
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