First evidence of cancer stem cells brings hope for possible future treatment

Health Reporter

Scientists have found the first “conclusive evidence” of the existence of cancer stem cells in humans, in a discovery which could put an end to years of scientific controversy and pave the way for more effective cancer treatments which could attack the disease “at the root”.

Researchers at Oxford University and Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet said that their findings were “a vitally important step” in our understanding of how cancers developed and how best to treat them.

The existence of cancer stem cells – mutated stem cells responsible for the development and growth of cancers – has been hypothesised for decades, and their existence in mice was established two years ago. Whether or not they are also responsible for the growth of cancers in humans has remained controversial.

However, in a new study published in the journal Cancer Cell, an researchers said they had tracked gene mutations responsible for a form of blood cancer back to a distinct set of cells which they say are at the root of the cancer’s spread.

The study was carried out in a group of patients with a blood disease which commonly develops into leukaemia, and can only technically prove the existence of cancer stem cells for this particular condition, but the scientists said that “similar” cancer stem cells were likely to lie behind the development of other cancers.

Experts believe the theory of cancer stem cells may be of great importance for future treatments. It suggests that at the root of any cancer are a set of cells responsible for its growth. In theory, if treatments could be developed to specifically target these cells, then a cancer could be eradicated altogether.

“The idea here is that the cancer depends on these stem cells for being able to propagate,” said Dr Petter Woll, of the Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford. “If we can eliminate the cancer stem cells, it would be like removing a tree by the roots – it won’t grow back, like it would if you removed it by the stem.”

The 15 patients involved in the study had myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a blood disorder which causes a drop in the number of healthy blood cells, and develops into acute myeloid leukaemia in around half of all cases.

Researchers investigated malignant cells in the bone marrow of the patients and tracked them over time. Using genetic analysis, they were able to isolate a small and distinct group of MDS cells which were the origin of the cancer-driving DNA changes which were causing the disease to progress.

The researchers emphasised that their findings did not offer any new treatment for MDS or leukaemia patients. However, Dr Woll said that it did give future researchers “a target” for development of more efficient “cancer stem cell-specific” therapies. However, even if cancer stem cells were eliminated, Dr Woll added, there would still be a chance that genetic mutations could lead to other stem cells later becoming cancer stem cells.

Professor Kamil Kranc, a Cancer Research UK stem cell expert based at the University of Edinburgh, said that the findings were a “a huge leap towards understanding the roots of blood cancers”.

“Cancer stem cells have long been thought to be at the heart of many types of cancers but identifying these rogue cells has been a major challenge,” he said. “The next step will be to find specific drugs that eliminate these unique cells, which could be key to helping more people survive cancer.”

Dr Neil Rodrigues, of the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute at Cardiff University, said that the new study was “very important”, as it “precisely defines the provenance and biological composition of the cancer stem cell in MDS.”

“The implications for therapy in MDS itself are important as we could now design curative therapies specifically against the cancer stem cell in this otherwise difficult to treat disease and monitor how effective that treatment is,” he said. “If cancer stem cells are definitively identified in human cancers outside the blood system, then this strategy could similarly be applied to effect cure in a wide range of cancers.”

Professor Sten Eirik Jacobsen, also of the Weatherall Institute, who led the study, said that an improved understanding of cancer stem cells could be as crucial as the revolution in our understanding of the genetics of cancer. However, he emphasised that a great deal of work still needed to be done, and cancers which have proven difficult to treat would remain so for the foreseeable future.

“[Cancer stem cells are] a big piece of the puzzle, but only one piece,” he said. “The thing we know about cancers is that many will continue to be very difficult to treat… the big revolution in cancer treatment is that we are learning much more about genetics, that is key, but understanding what are the key cells is also very important.”

Q&A: Cancer stem cells

What are cancer stem cells?

Stem cells are the body's "master cells", which are capable of developing into the various tissues of the body. Mutations in the stem cells – to make "cancer stem cells" have been theorised to be an underlying driver of cancer spread.

How long have we known about them?

The concept of cancer stem cells has been around for many years. A population of leukaemia cells that behaved like cancer stem cells in mice were identified 15 years ago by scientists in Toronto. Further lab experiments made similar findings for other cancers, but many scientists challenged the findings and questions were raised over whether cancer stem cells existed at all. Two years ago definitive evidence of their existence in mice was demonstrated.

What is new about this study?

It is the first which appears to conclusively prove the existence of such cancer stem cells in humans.

How does it change cancer treatment?

At the moment it doesn’t, but it opens up the possibility of more effective cancer therapies which could target the root of the cancer, which experts say could be key to helping more people survive cancer.

Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again say analysts

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
tech

Company decides to go for simply scary after criticising other sites for 'creepy and targeted' advertising

Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
News
news

Footage shot by a passerby shows moment an ill man was carried out of his burning home

Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
i100
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Sport
Fans of Palmeiras looks dejected during the match between Palmeiras and Santos
footballPalmeiras fan killed trying to 'ambush' bus full of opposition supporters
News
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
filmsIt's nearly a wrap on Star Wars: Episode 7, producer reveals
Travel
travel

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    ICT Teacher - NQTs encouraged to apply

    £110 - £130 per day + TBC : Randstad Education Reading: ICT Teacher needed up ...

    KS2 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Primary Teaching Job in the Devon We ...

    KS1 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Primary Teaching Job in the Devon We ...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £70 - £75 per day: Randstad Education Group: TA's urgently required. London (S...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past