The deadly ‘mother cells’ that drive the growth of tumors have been pinpointed for the first time – a breakthrough which could help in the development of a ‘real cure’, scientists say.
In three separate studies on different cancers, researchers have shown the growth and life of a tumor to be dependent on one small group of cells.
They are believed to be resistant to radiotherapy and chemotherapy and so to be to blame for cancers coming back after treatment.
But, until now, no one had proved them to exist in tumors.
The breakthrough, reported simultaneously in the prestigious journals Nature and Science, raises the prospect of better treatments for cancer.
Some scientists liken the killing of cancer stem cells to pulling dandelions out by the roots, rather than merely removing their heads.
Ben Simons, of Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute, said that knowing just which cells to target ‘might be a much better strategy to effect a real cure and prevent relapse’.
Professor Simons’s study tracked the development of skin cancer in mice. By tracking individual cells, it showed a small number of them drive the growth of the tumor.
A second study identified a group of cells that allow the most common type of brain tumor to regrow after chemotherapy.
University of Texas researcher Luis Parada showed that killing the stem cells, with the help of genetic wizardry, stopped the brain tumors from growing any further in mice.
The third study showed the importance of cancer stem cells in early-stage stomach cancer.
The experiments are important because they tracked the progress of individual cells in tumors as they appeared. This makes the results more reliable than those of previous experiments, which have used more artificial scenarios.
In time, the work could lead to new drugs that home in on and destroy the ‘mother cells’. Options could include combining these with standard therapies to mop up cancer cells left behind by traditional treatment.
However, the work is still in the early stages and any patient benefits are likely to be many years away.
Hurdles include finding a drug that kills cancer stem cells without harming essential healthy stem cells.
Dr Michaela Frye, a Cancer Research UK scientist based at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Their results add even more weight to the theory that cancers are driven by a distinct group of cells called cancer stem cells.’
Attribution: Mail Online