Cancer Stem Cell Discovery Could Hold Key To First Real Cure For The Disease

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com Your Universe Online

In some cancers, doctors find that tumors shrink with treatment, yet only briefly, and then come back with a vengeance. Now, recent studies on three different types of tumors suggest that cancer stem cells are resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy and may explain why cancer becomes resistant to treatment.

A team of independent researchers came to the realization while studying tumors of the brain, intestines and skin in mice. Properties of so-called cancer stem cells that the researchers found could be further investigated and hopefully lead to new strategies in killing them off, said Luis F. Parada, a molecular geneticist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and senior author of the brain cancer study published on Wednesday.

If these cells are indeed the cells that fuel tumor growth then maybe you can target these cells, Professor Cedric Blanpain of the Free University of Brussels, who led the skin cancer study, told Pallab Ghosh at BBC News.

In the three separate cancer studies, the researchers have shown the growth and life of a tumor to be dependent on one small group of stem cells, they call mother cells. These cells are thought to fuel the diseases spread around the body the most common reason patients die from cancer.

Scientists had long believed certain cells were responsible for cancers coming back after treatment. But until now, nobody had proved them to exist in tumors.

The breakthrough, reported in the journals Nature and Science, brings researchers hope that they can finally find a cure for a disease that kills more than 150,000 people each year in the UK alone.

Scientists liken killing cancer stem cells to killing dandelions by pulling them out by the roots, rather than just removing the head. By combining a drug that attacks the stem cells with current treatments for cancer, they say a cure could likely occur.

But that could be easier said than done. Since the newly-discovered stem cells are very similar to healthy stem cells responsible for growing and renewing tissue in the body, any therapy targeting cancer stem cells could also destroy healthy cells. Researchers would need to deeply examine both types of cells to tease apart an differences that could be targeted in one cell and not the other.

Despite the roadblocks ahead, the confirmation that these cells even exist is important and groundbreaking for future cancer research, said Professor Hugo Snippert of the University Medical Centre in Utrecht, who led the study into intestinal tumors.

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Cancer Stem Cell Discovery Could Hold Key To First Real Cure For The Disease