Cancer Stem Cells: a new target

Each year brings more evidence that what causes many cancers is a case of biological betrayal on the part of stem cells.

I have blogged before about the potential for stem cell-based regenerative medicine therapies to aid cancer patients.

I have also written before about my own experiences as a cancer patient. As you can imagine, being a cancer and stem cell scientist but also now a cancer patient/survivor makes me especially eager to find ways to attack cancer.  An important new potential pathway to treating cancers and maybe even preventing cancers is to gain a better understanding of the stem cell connection.

What do stem cells have to do with cancer?

What seems to be happening in many, if not most cancers, is that good stem cells go bad.  This appears to happen in all the most common cancers including breast, prostate, lung, blood, etc.

Regular stem cells that are important for maintaining all healthy tissues turn against our bodies, betraying us like the worst kind of double agents. This transformation is akin to the metamorphosis of Anikin Skywalker into Darth Vader.  Power for good turns into power for bad. These rogue stem cells become cancer stem cells.

The cancer stem cells, instead of doing the job they are supposed to do of maintaining healthy tissues, decide they instead need to build new tissues at the expense of the rest of the body. These new, abnormal tissues are tumors.

On thing that makes cancer stem cells especially nasty is that while they seem crucial for the genesis of tumors, they remain hidden away often deep inside tumors and appear to be especially resistant to cancer treatments such as radiation and chemo. A doctor might kill off 99.99% of a tumor with radiation and chemo, but  the tumor may readily return. This points to the second aspect of cancer stem cells that makes them uber-villians–all it takes is one of them to escape treatment and they can regrow a whole tumor.

But the stem-like properties of cancer stem cells is likely also their Achilles’ heel. It may be the only window into shutting them down or even killing them by forcing them to harken back to their normal stem cell days to stop proliferating and try to differentiate. Some will differentiate and some, because of their messed up molecular programming, will commit suicide as they try but fail to differentiate. The key goal is to find ways to “unlock” the differentiation pathways in cancer stem cells to put an end to them.