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Targeting Cancer Stem Cells In The Lab

Targeting Cancer Stem Cells In The Lab

Understanding of the particular cancer cells within a tumour that drive its growth could now advance more rapidly, thanks to Oxford University scientists.

They show in the journal PNAS how a crucial class of cancer cell, called cancer stem cells, can be investigated in the lab in ways that should greatly speed their study, and allow the development of drugs targeted against them.

'Cancer stem cells drive the growth of a tumour,' says Dr Trevor Yeung of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford University. 'If we could target treatments against these cells specifically, we should be able to eradicate the cancer completely.'

He adds: 'Radiotherapy and chemotherapy work against all rapidly dividing cells. But there is increasing evidence that cancer stem cells are more resistant than other cells to this treatment. Cancer stem cells that have not been eradicated can lead to later recurrence of cancer.'

'It's like trying to weed the garden. It's no good just chopping off the leaves, we need to target the roots to stop the weeds coming back.'

Cancer cells in tumours are not all exactly the same. Tumours are now understood to contain different types of cells, and it is the cancer stem cells that retain the ability to drive the tumour's growth.

They are called cancer stem cells because, like stem cells present in normal tissues of the body, they can produce further cells like themselves and also differentiate to provide various different cell types.

'But a better, more descriptive name would be cancer-driving cells or tumour-initiating cells,' says Dr Yeung, a Cancer Research UK scientist and first author on the paper.

Study of these cancer-driving cells within tumours has been slow because it has been hard to identify them unequivocally, separate them out and study them in the lab.

Previously, identifying cancer stem cells has relied on working with cancer biopsies from human patients. Scientists have tried to enrich the number of cancer stem cells present in samples and then see if those cells are sufficient to initiate tumours in mice. This is a long process, and the samples can't then be used in further experiments.

The Cancer Research UK-funded scientists in Oxford have developed a new way of obtaining samples rich in cancer stem cells from bowel cancer cell lines and maintaining them in simple cell cultures in the lab.


"A colony of various cell types found in the gut grown in the lab from a single bowel cancer stem cell. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Oxford)"

Source: University of Oxford

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