Cancer stem cell research gathering pace

Evidence has been steadily increasing that small numbers of stem cells within tumours actually orchestrate their growth and proliferation.

We have reported before that many experts dismissed the idea of cancer stem cells, but in May 2012 three studies from three different research centre showed their existence and that they were difficult to kill using chemotherapy as they had a filtering defence system protecting them against chemicals. Where not eradicated by standard chemotherapy, they lived to create a revitalised tumour.

However, we also covered research that showed they could be tackled by using natural compounds.

Stem cells are the natural repair cells of the body they exist throughout the body and are the cells of the foetus in the first 50 days, growing very rapidly prior to their differentiation into heart, lung, kidney, whatever, specialist cells. Dr John Beard first reported his observations that stem cells might get stuck in their rapidly dividing form back in 1906, but was ignored. His work was developed in America in the 1970s by William Kelley, and is now being used by Dr Nicholas Gonzalez in New York. He treats people with pancreatic enzymes since they seem capable of converting the stem cells into normal cells. In 2004 Professor Wang and his team in Columbia University claimed a breakthrough when they showed that stem cells under the effect of localised oestrogen (exactly what Beard had said 98 years before) were driving stomach cancer.

Work at Bart’s Hospital, and in the Blizzard Institute in London has now succeeded in extracting cancer stem cells from tumours, putting their existence beyond doubt.

The discovery of stem cells’ potential has led to hopes for new therapies 

Stem cells, which are found in tissue all over the body, can grow into every kind of cell, including bone, skin and blood cells.

Professor Mackenzie and his colleague Dr Adrian Biddle (recent Nobel Prize winner for his work on stem cells) at Bart’s along with fellow research from teams Cambridge and Manchester to Texas and Massachusetts are gradually honing and proving the theory.

"All stem cells seem particularly resistant to current drug therapies but certain of they with slug-like characteristics are very nasty indeed. We’ve found both types of cell in head and neck tumours, and others have found them in breast, colon and several other types of cancer. If we could find ways to target them, we might have an elegant solution to the problem of cancer and its growth. But the question is, how can you target cancer stem cells without damaging normal stem cells? We dont know yet. But cancer stem cells do have a different metabolism, so the hope is we can target and exploit these differences", said Mackenzie. 

Stem cells have been found to lie behind many cancers like brain tumours, breast cancer, leukaemia, colon, stomach and more.

But as we repeatedly tell people at CANCERactive, your cancer is as individual as you are and it is very likely that not all brain tumours or breast cancers are driven by cancer stem cells.

GlaxoSmithKlein (GSK) has already put $1.4 billion into the American cancer research company OncoMed in 2007 to develop cancer stem cell therapies. It’s early days yet.

Of particular interest is a drug called TR4, from Trojantec. It is a double ’fusion’ protein. The first protein from fireflies can travel anywhere in the body and locks onto cancer stem cells. The second inhibits the ’Notch’ pathway, specific to cancer stem cells and which makes them propagate and grow. Short-term experiments with mice have shown effectiveness with breast, ovarian and colorectal cancers. A visiting Professor (Agamemnon Epentos) at Imperial, along with Professor Charles Coombes have studied the animal trials. Next stop human trials. To read about foods that prevent cancer stem cell regrowth Click here
October - December Cancer Watch 2012
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