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Hitting the bullseye on cancer stem cells



Researchers have identified a unique feature of cancer stem cells that can be exploited to kill the deadly cells thought to be the reason that cancer comes back after therapy. Understanding this feature will be useful for delivering more targeted cancer therapeutics to the right patients.

The study, published this month in Cell Chemical Biology and led by Mick Bhatia, Ph.D., director of McMaster University’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute, reveals that an existing set of drugs is effective in killing cancer stem cells. It also explains how this led the team to uncover important details about how these cells work in human tumors.

“The drugs helped us to understand the biology. We’ve worked backwards, employing a series of drugs used in the clinic to understand a new way that cancer stem cells can be killed,” explained Dr. Bhatia.

The researchers found that a particular protein is an important actor in cancer stem cells, and that this protein allows existing drugs to work on cancer cells, causing them to die.

“This paper explains why this set of drugs is selectively affecting tumors without harming normal tissues,” added Yannick Benoit, Ph.D., the paper’s first author.

Dr. Bhatia hopes that this information can be used to deliver targeted therapies to the patients who would benefit from them, while sparing others from unnecessary treatments. He believes that treatment of blood and other cancers can follow the example set in breast cancer, where patients receive treatments tailored to their specific form of the disease. 

“In the case of breast cancer, other groups have found new ways to make existing drugs more effective by only giving them to people who were likely to benefit based on their specific traits and using drugs that target these traits,” explained Dr. Bhatia.

While developing a new drug takes an average of 15 years and comes with a price tag in the hundreds of millions, defining the role of existing drugs to use them better in patients will help to accelerate the process of bringing the right drugs to the right people.

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