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Cancer's stem cell connection

6th May 2008

Treatments for cancer will be influenced by the discovery that stem cells are thought to cause the growth of tumours, says an article in The Economist.

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A crucial medical understanding made recently was that cancerous tumours are caused by stem cells. Stem cells make tissues in the body grow and divide. These divisions will produce both healthy and unhealthy tissues.

Scientists believe that cancer could be caused by "the brakes coming off the regulatory system that stops normal stem cells from reproducing too much".

Cancer is difficult to treat. Although a tumour can be treated so that most of it is destroyed, if the stem cells are left intact then it will regrow. If there was a way of killing all a tumour's stem cells then "true cures for cancer would be possible".

In April a discussion at the American Association for Cancer Research, in San Diego, suggested that killing off the stem cells in cancer is very important in order to destroy them completely.

William Matsui of the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Centre in Baltimore examined 268 samples from pancreatic cancer patients and discovered "that the pattern of stem cells in their tumours predicted how long they would live".

The key question is how to eradicate stem cells, which has proved difficult. Traditional chemotherapy used to treat cancer does not kill off stem cells.

Dr Rosen and his team from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, looked at samples from breast cancer patients. They took the samples prior to 3 months of chemotherapy treatment and after it had finished.

The team put forward the idea that "if stem cells were resistant in people as well as mice, then the proportion of stem cells within a tumour would increase as more vulnerable cells were killed off in disproportionate numbers".

They were proved correct. Women who underwent chemotherapy treatment had samples which showed stem cells increased in their tumours from 5% prior to treatment to 14% after it finished.

Dr Rosen's team also looked at samples from women who received treatment with lapatinib (a new drug). These samples showed that stem cells decreased from 10% prior to treatment to 7.5% after they were treated. Other studies have shown that decreasing the number of stem cells in tumours prolongs the lives of patients.

Concentrating on treatment to destroy stem cells in tumours "may be the chink in cancer's armour that people have long been searching for".


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