Dr. Rebecca Morris leader of the Stem Cells and Cancer lab at The Hormel Institute received a multi-year grant to study stem cells originating in adult bone marrow and their possible effects on skin diseases, including cancer. The grant, from NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), awards Dr. Morris with $373,688 over two years for her research project “Identification of Novel Epidermal Progenitors.”

Dr. Morris says this research is significant because it will contribute new understanding of epithelial biology, and blood and bone marrow in general, provide possible new targets for epithelial cancer prevention and control, validate liquid biopsy of blood as a diagnostic tool, and help her and her team to achieve their goal of preventing and alleviating chronic skin diseases including cancer, psoriasis, and epidermolysis bullosa.

Cells in the body that cover surfaces (like the epidermis, or top layer of skin) or line spaces (like ducts in mammary gland or lining of the colon) are called epithelial cells. In adults, most cancers originate from these epithelial cells. However, new research has identified certain bone marrow derived epithelial cells (BMDECs) in “normal, healthy” human subjects. Dr. Morris and her team do not believe anyone has yet described the features and nature of these cells, or analyzed their function.

The research team has hypothesized that the epithelial cells from the bone marrow are epithelial stem cells. They therefore hope to demonstrate that BMDECs include a novel population of adult tissue stem cells that can be gathered to chronically compromised epithelium, such as skin cancer or psoriasis, and regenerate it.

Skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer in the United States, with millions of people diagnosed each year. As we enter summer, it is important to remember simple steps like staying out of the sun during the middle of the day, staying in the shade, and wearing sunscreen can help reduce your skin cancer risk.

Next steps for Dr. Morris’s research include determining how these blood borne epithelial cells are recruited to the skin, the recruiting molecules, how the recruitment can be good or bad, and how to modulate their recruitment to alleviate disease.

Hormel Institute Media Release