Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Broad Institute have identified a compound that can destroy breast cancer stem cells, a type of master cell resistant to conventional treatment.
Research teams have been trying to find ways to kill these master cancer cells in hopes of finding an easier way to cure cancer. The study findings appear in the August 13th issue of the journal Cell.
“There is plenty of evidence to suggest these cells are to blame for many recurrences observed after treatment has stopped,” Piyush Gupto, lead study author, said in a telephone interview.
The problem is cancer stem cells are rare and difficult to study in the laboratory is because they change quickly into other types of cells, making them hard to destroy.
“While it wasn’t clear it would be possible to find a compound that selectively destroys cancer stem cells, that is what we did,” said Gupta in a statement.
For the study, Gupta’s team tested 16,000 existing chemical compounds against breast cancer stem cells in the lab to see which ones were able to specifically destroy the cancer stem cells. Those which performed best were then tested in the lab and in mice.
The compound salinomycin, was 100 times more effective in destroying breast cancer stem cells more than Taxol, a common chemotherapy medicine. It also slowed tumor growth.
Further testing of this compound in animals is needed to assess its potential to treat humans. While the outcome of that research is unknown, the findings support a theory that stem cells fuel cancer and may have created a way to find effective drugs.
“We now have a method that can be used by researcher’s word wide to find agents that can destroy cancer stem cells and potentially treat cancer,” Gupta said.
According to studies done in recent years, stem cells appear to fuel the growth of several kinds of cancer including breast, lung and brain tumors. The cells are resistant to standard cancer therapy, so finding a way to stop them is important, said Judy Lieberman, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School who researches cancer stem cells.
This research introduces a completely new way of identifying cancer drugs. The challenge for the future is to bring this class of drugs to the clinic and to identify the patients that are likely to respond to them.
The National Cancer Institute estimates 192,370 women and 1,910 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. 40,170 women and 440 men will die from the disease. #