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Do stem cells really help cancer escape treatment? New study reveals the truth

by , 13 March 2015

Stem cells' ability to transform in just about any kind of cells has been top scientists' “list of exciting discoveries” for many years. But this ability is also of great concern to medical experts. As researchers have shown, malignant tumors contain stem cells and experts fear that the cells' transformative power helps cancers resist treatment.

But is this true?
Here’s what a new study by the Washington University School of Medicine reveals…
Stem cell study reveals scary truth about cancer
Until now, scientist had identified stem cells only in aggressive, fast-growing tumors but recent studies show that the threat posed by cancer stem cells is more prevalent than they thought. 

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis recently conducted a mouse study which revealed that slow-growing tumors also have treatment-resistant stem cells.

According to this study, low-grade brain cancer stem cells detected were also less sensitive to anticancer drugs. But after comparing healthy stem cells with stem cells from these brain tumors, they found out what might be causing the treatment resistance. And it’s great news because they’re now looking fornew therapeutic strategies to curb this.

"At the very least, we’re going to have to use different drugs and different, likely higher dosages to make sure we kill these tumor stem cells," said senior author Dr David H. Gutmann, the Donald O. Schnuck Family Professor of Neurology.

To identify cancer stem cells and demonstrate that they could form tumors when transplanted into normal, cancer-free cells, Professor Yi-Hsien Chen, a senior postdoctoral research associate in Gutmann’s laboratory and first author of this research, used a mouse model of neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) low-grade brain tumors. It's important to know that NF1 is a genetic disorder that can cause an array of problems, including brain tumors, impaired vision, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, heart defects and bone deformities, It affects around one in every 2,500 babies.

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Most children suffering from NF1 are diagnosed with a brain tumor known as optic glioma. This tumor is often treated with drugs that inhibit a cell growth pathway originally identified by Gutmann. Laboratory tests conducted as part of the new research revealed that it took 10 times the dosage of these drugs to kill the low-grade cancer stem cells.

Unlike healthy stem cells from the brain, cancer stem cells made more copies of a protein called Abcg1. And it’s this protein that helps those cells survive stress and evade treatment.

"This protein blocks a signal from inside the cells that should make them more vulnerable to treatment," Gutmann explained. "If we can identify a drug that disables this protein, it would make some cancer stem cells easier to kill."

According to these researchers the findings could be applied more broadly to other brain tumors, even if the mice the researchers studied were bred to model NF1 optic gliomas. "Because stem cells haven’t differentiated into specialised cells, they can easily activate genes to turn on new developmental programs that allow the cells to survive cancer treatments," said Gutmann, also director of the Washington University Neurofibromatosis Center. "

Based on these new findings, we will have to develop additional strategies to keep these tumors from evading our best treatments."
Source: The study was conducted and published by the Washington University in St. Louis

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