Health Talk: Teratomas

One of the strangest phenomena in human development could actually be a blessing in disguise. Teratomas, meaning “monstrous tumor” in Greek, are a strange type of tumor that consist of cysts encapsulated in fluid. In many instances, they contain cartilage, hair, or even teeth. Sometimes, if these tumors grow large enough, they can contain structures similar to that of a fetus. However, these seemingly monstrous tumors could soon be used as a tool in stem cell research.

Teratomas are usually benign tumors, which means that they are non-cancerous, but they still pose a major threat to people. What makes teratomas unique, and also grotesque, is their composition. The composition of teratomas is very similar to the composition of early embryos. Human embryos start as a spherical structure of cells with three layers, called germ layers. These layers from the embryo stage eventually develop into mature tissues and organ systems. Teratomas contain forms of all three germ layers, so they are able to create tissues found in all of the major organs in the body. However, since teratomas are usually found in the reproductive tract of humans, the tissues in the teratomas are often found in the wrong places. For example, dermoid cysts are types of teratomas that contain hair and have characteristics similar to human skin. However, instead of developing on the skin, they develop on internal organs of the body, such as the female ovaries or skull bones. Sometimes teratomas made up of brain tissue develop in areas other than the brain; it is thought that antibodies are created to kill these tumors but end up killing cells in the brain as well.
Another rare form of teratoma is a kind that forms structures resembling a misshapen fetus. These are called either “fetus in fetu” or “fetiform teratoma” depending on the presence of a spine, and can contain complete organ systems and even limbs, including a beating heart. This bizarre occurrence is considered to be a form of a parasitic twin, as the tumor shares the blood supply and poses a hazard to the individual. Alamjan Nematilaev caused a news sensation when, in 2003, his twin was removed from his stomach. The story on the, states that the parasitic twin was extraordinarily well developed, having much of a normal body and even a rudimentary face.

This similarity of teratomas to body tissue makes them very dangerous. However, teratomas are also proving to be an effective research tool. Drugs can be tested on these tumors; as of now, many drug tests are carried out on other animals, such as mice. Many drugs do not work the same way on these animals as they do on humans. If drugs were tested on these tumors, it would be a much more accurate way to test the effects. Furthermore, as tumors, teratomas provide a way for researchers to test medicines against cancer. Teratomas are also able to produce a variety of human tissue, so the effect of certain drugs on specific tissues can be determined without using actual human patients.

Stem cell research is still controversial because it involves destroying human embryos. With research in teratomas, scientists may have an alternative to using stem cells from human embryos. Using teratomas to produce stem cells would allow scientists to produce cells needed to treat certain diseases that as of now have no cure. Teratomas differ from embryos because they produce human tissue randomly. Unlike embryos, teratomas have no guiding factors that tell them where to develop certain tissues. This means that teratomas will never become humans, and the controversy over the destruction of human embryos is bypassed.

Teratomas still seem strange as they are not yet fully understood; a tooth inside the body would shock most people. However, if anything can be said of scientific progress, it is the overcoming of obstacles for the benefit of others. Perhaps one day these teratomas will be viewed as less of a horror and more of a research tool that can be used for beneficial purposes.