Stem cell findings point toward new cancer treatments
Three studies on different types of cancers bolster the theory that specific stem cells within tumors are responsible for a cancer’s persistent growth.
When cancers are treated, tumors may shrink but then come roaring back. Now studies on three different types of tumors suggest a key reason why: The cancers are fueled by stem cells that chemotherapy drugs don’t kill.
The findings — made by independent research teams that used mice to study tumors of the brain, intestines and skin — could change the approach to fighting cancers in humans, experts said.
Properties of these so-called cancer stem cells can be investigated so researchers can devise strategies for killing them off, said Luis F. Parada, a molecular geneticist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and senior author of one of the studies published Wednesday.
“Everything has a soft underbelly once you understand it well,” Parada said. “With all the modern molecular techniques and modern approaches we have, we should be able to find their soft underbelly.”
Cancer researchers have long suspected — and some pioneering studies have strongly suggested — that specific cells within tumors are responsible for their continued growth. But the earlier experiments hadn’t convinced everyone, and the hypothesis has been controversial.
The three papers published by the journals Nature and Science “really should seal the deal,” said cancer biologist Owen Witte, director of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center at UCLA.
“People can stop arguing,” he said. “Now they can say, ‘OK, the cells are here. We now need to know how to treat them.’ ”
All three studies used molecular tricks that allowed scientists to mark certain tumor cells with bright colors. When these marked cells divided, all of the daughter cells were similarly colored. This permitted the researchers to see whether any old cell in a tumor can continue to fuel its growth or if only a subset of cells is responsible.
The three groups used different experimental approaches and different kinds of cancer, but all of them found the latter to be true.
Parada’s group, whose work was published in Nature, studied an aggressive cancer called glioblastoma that arises when brain cells called glia turn rogue. The scientists started with a hunch — if a cancer stem cell existed, it would have biological similarities to the stem cells that normally exist in the brain.
To test whether this was true, the team created glioblastoma-prone mice whose brain stem cells glowed green. When those cells divided, their daughter cells contained some of the green dye too. After enough generations, the dye was diluted away.
Sure enough, the mice developed brain tumors. When the researchers examined those tumors, they found a small number of green-glowing cells that weren’t actively dividing, unlike the rest of the tumor.
It looked as though the scientists had detected cancer stem cells. (Read More)