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Liver cancer is rare in children and adolescents. There are two main types of childhood liver cancer: hepatoblastoma, a very rare kind of liver cancer usually found in children under 4; and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common type of liver cancer in adolescents, young adults, and adults.
HCC is one of the most aggressive and difficult to treat cancers. Although major progress has been made in understanding HCC risk factors, the molecular mechanisms that cause HCC to begin and progress are poorly understood, particularly in children. Regardless of the cause, cancer stem cells (CSC) are known to play a role in the development, growth, and spread of cancer, as well as in the cancer becoming resistant to treatment or recurring.
Every cancerous tumor is believed to have begun from a single progenitor cell that has developed the ability to survive and grow in what might otherwise be abnormal circumstances. Debanjan Dhar, PhD at the University of California, San Diego is currently conducting a study to isolate and purify HCC stem/progenitor cells long before tumor nodules are visible.
In addition, Dr. Dhar has been awarded a two-year grant from CureSearch for Children's Cancer to study the role of a specific protein, CD44, in the creation of HCC and to investigate the molecular mechanisms that are regulated by CD44 in the development of liver tumors.
CD44 is a protein primarily seen on the cell surface and is well-known as a cancer stem cell marker. When trying to create HCC in mice that don't have CD44, Dr. Dhar found that HCC development is reduced if CD44 is not there. This suggests that CD44 is more than just a marker, but that is a key driver in the creation and progression of HCC.
Because normal mature liver cells do not express CD44 and those from HCC tumors overexpress it, it is important to understand how CD44 affects the development of cancer. Dr. Dhar hypothesizes that CD44 expression prevents tumor progenitor cells from dying and orchestrates important signals that tell the cells to become cancerous.
He hopes that understanding the function and regulation of CD44 in HCC will generate new knowledge and help develop novel targets (treatments) for this cancer.