One of the more recent breakthroughs in cancer research has been the understanding that not all cancerous cells have the same reproductive capability. In fact, some cells are designed to “fuel” the disease. These cells are called cancer stem-cells, and a new research done at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel has succeeded in isolating them – and destroying them.
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The researchers focused on isolating cancer stem cells that lead to the growth of Wilms’ tumors, a type of cancer typically found in the kidneys of young children. The researchers used these cancer stem cells to test a new therapeutic approach that one day might be used to treat some of the more aggressive types of this disease. The results were published on EMBO Molecular Medicine.
“In earlier studies, cancer stem cells were isolated from adult cancers of the breast, pancreas and brain but so far much less is known about stem cells in pediatric cancers,” says Professor Benjamin Dekel, head of the Pediatric Stem Cell Research Institute and a senior physician at the Sheba Medical Center and the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University.
“Cancer stem cells contain the complete genetic machinery necessary to start, sustain and propagate tumor growth and they are often referred to as cancer-initiating cells. As such, they not only represent a useful system to study cancer development but they also serve as a way to study new drug targets and potential treatments designed to stop the growth and spread of different types of cancer.”
Finding the cells that matter
Wilms’ tumors are the most prevalent type of tumor found in the kidneys of children. While many patients respond well if the tumors are removed early by surgery and if patients are given chemotherapy, recurrences may occur and the cancer can spread to other tissues, increasing the risks for the patient’s health. Conventional chemotherapy is toxic to all cells in the body and if given to children may lead to the development of secondary cancers when they become adults, the researchers explain. For this reason, targeted treatment is much sought-after, and identifying specific cells is of paramount importance.
The researchers were able to graft human cancer cells into mice, which led to the growth of human tumors. The stem cells were identified and the research has shown that they are indeed responsible for tumor growth. Moreover, the method used by the scientists could be replicated for future studies.
“We identified several biomarkers, including molecules that are on the cell surface, cell signaling molecules and microRNAs, that make it possible to distinguish between cancer stem cells or cancer-initiating cells and the rest of the cells in the tumor that are less likely to lead to cancer. In further experiments, we were able to show that an antibody drug that targets one such biomarker, the neural cell adhesion molecule, was able to either almost completely or in some cases completely eradicate the tumors that we induced in mice,” says Dekel. “This preliminary result suggests that the cancer stem cells that we have identified, isolated and propagated may serve as a useful tool to look for new drug targets as well as new drugs for the treatment of Wilms’ tumors.”
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