Too often the surgical removal of cancer or its elimination through chemo or radiotherapy isn’t the end of the story, but where do the relapses come from? Part of the explanation may lay in what are known as cancer stem cells, which could be thought of as little seedlings that hide away in the body’s tissues until they feel the time is right to return to action. A newly discovered molecule has raised hopes of cutting these crafty critters off at the source, with early experiments demonstrating how it can latch onto cancer stem cells and starve them of what they need to survive.
Cancer stem cells were first identified in the mid-1990s by researcher John Dick, who found that they could drive certain types of cancer as a result of their ability to evade existing treatments, which instead focused on killing fast-growing cancer cells. This discovery spawned a new branch of cancer research, which today is producing some very promising advances, such as nanoparticles engineered to seek them out and destroy them.
William Taylor, a biological scientist at the University of Toledo, likens cancer stem cells to dandelions living amongst a well-kept lawn.
“You could chop the plant off, but it will drop a seed,” he says. “You know the seeds are there, but they’re hiding. You pull one weed out and another comes up right after it. Cancers can be like this as well.”