I confess.

I had cancer.

And stem cells might be to blame!

At the relatively young age of 42, I was diagnosed with what is supposed to be an older man’s disease: prostate cancer.

How could this happen to me?  It could be the fault of stem cells.

No, I don’t mean some rogue stem cells created in my own lab that attacked me, but rather I’m talking about my own perhaps slightly imperfect stem cells that might have gone rogue.

You see scientists are realizing that for many, but not all cancers, a unique type of stem cell called a “cancer stem cell” might be to blame.

As we live, our cells are not simply sitting there, even if we are. They are doing stuff like making our hearts beat, our minds think (at least some of us), and so on.  For some if not almost all tissues of our bodies, cells have to be replaced and stem cells make this happen.

Think of subs in a football game.

In fact some of our cells get pretty beaten up doing their jobs. Imagine a quarterback who has just been steamrolled by a 350 lb. linebacker. That happens to some of our cells too, except instead of a linebacker it might be radiation from the worldwe live in, or a free radical molecule generated in our bodies, or some other cellular linebacker.

And stem cells are like the quarterbacks of our bodies. They direct much of what goes on. If they get hurt, we could in trouble. A lot of quarterbacks get concussions, a condition that these days we are realizing can have serious long-term health consequences including brain damage. For a cell, its brain is its nucleus, where its precious DNA is tucked away. Most often when stem cells get injured, they suffer damage to their brain, to their nucleus in the form ofmutations.

The problem with damaged stem cells is more complicated, interesting, and dangerous than you might think first hand. Because you see, when a stem cell suffers braindamage in the form of a mutation, sometimes it is not just out of commission (i.e. dead). You do not always simply lose this valuable cell. Sometimes, there are worse consequences.

Imagine in afootball game if your star quarterback gets hammered and has to leave the championship game. That’s horrible, right?

‘What could be worse?’, you think. I’ll tell you.

Imagine your quarterback gets his clock cleaned, but instead of leaving the game he secretly starts helping the other team. Throwing interceptions, fumbling, tripping hisown players….that is far worse than him leaving the game.

The same kind of thing can happen inside of us with our stem cells. When damaged, sometimes they do not leave the game (undergo apoptosis), but go on to play against us as cancer stem cells. It is the ultimate betrayal because the new goal for them is nothing short of killing us.

These extreme Benedict Arnolds, cancer stem cells, play a role in many cases of prostatecancer so I wonder -- might they be to blame for my cancer? Wouldn’t that be ironic if I, as a cancer and stem cell biologist, got cancer because my stem cells turned against me?  

Think Anakin Skywalker turning into Darth Vader.

That’s one of the problems with stem cells. They are so powerful that if they do turn to the dark side, we are in trouble.

Admitting publicly that I have cancer is a risk for me. People do view you differently when you have had a major illness such as cancer, but for the most part, I’ve gotten very positive support from both the scientific and non-scientific communities that I am part of these days. I think part of the reason is that cancer touches everyone in one way or another. If you want to read more about my experiences as a cancer scientist turned cancer patient and cancer survivor,you can read some of blog entries here and here. I am 20 months out from surgery (knock on wood) so so far I am doing well.

Of course Idon’t know that stem cells had anything to do with me getting cancer. In fact I hope they didn’t.

But I’ll never know for sure of course and sometimes I wonder...