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article imageScientists focus on cancer stem cells in war against the disease

By Michael Krebs     Dec 22, 2010 in Science
The most stubborn and deadly of cancerous tumors feature stem cells of their own design, and now scientists worldwide are working on eradicating these metastasizing factory cells.
The war on cancer is just beginning to receive a significant advance from the global scientific community as researchers are now working to better understand the machinations of specific renewal cells known as cancer stem cells.
Cancer stem cells behave in a manner that is much like healthy stem cells - producing a renewal function that yields armies of cells of a specific design. A healthy bone stem cell will spend its life producing bone cells, whereas a muscle stem cell would focus solely on the production of muscle cells. Cancer stem cells behave similarly - however, their end result is found in successful metastasis.
Cancer stem cells also exhibit a resistance to chemotherapy and radiation, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The challenge these cells represent to the end goal of eradicating cancer has mobilized scientists to better understand how these cells are produced and how they can best be destroyed through drug treatments or other means.
Earlier this year, according to a Science Daily posting, scientists at Oxford University demonstrated how cancer stem cells can be readily identified and investigated in a lab.
"Cancer stem cells drive the growth of a tumour," Dr. Trevor Yeung of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford University said, according to Science Daily. "If we could target treatments against these cells specifically, we should be able to eradicate the cancer completely."
The focus among researchers now is on the development of specific drugs to target the cancer stem cells exclusively. As the Wall Street Journal reports, these cancer stem cell questions present "a quandary for the oncologist," according to Robert Weinberg, a cancer researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With conventional means such as chemotherapy, "the tumor may shrink dramatically in size and the non-stem cells may be effectively killed."
When chemotherapy and radiation applications are utilized most of the surviving cells are cancer stem cells.
"They can live and persist and regrow the tumor," Weinberg told the Wall Street Journal.
And like any frontier in science, the more we learn the more we realize how little we know. But the knowledge we are gleaning about these cancer stem cells is encouraging, even with the setbacks that present themselves.
"People are still trying to define exactly what a cancer stem cell is," Bert Vogelstein, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, told the Wall Street Journal.
But with that definition comes the hope of a tangible cure.
More about Cancer, Stem cells, Disease, Chemotherapy, Radiation
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