Cancer Stem Cells Responsible For Tumor Regrowth

By Amir Khan on August 2, 2012 10:56 AM EDT

Stem Cells
Mouse stem cells (Photo: Creative Commons)

Researchers have discovered cancer "stem cells" in tumors that are responsible for tumor regrowth after they have been eradicated, which explains how tumors grow back even after they have been removed. The findings signify a "paradigm shift" in cancer treatment, researchers said.

If there's even one tumor cell left over, the cancer stem cell can cause the tumor to come back, researchers wrote in the study, published in the journals Nature and Science. The stem cells are resistant to radiation and chemotherapy, and are responsible for spreading cancer throughout the body.

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Researchers likened these stem cells to pulling weeds. If you just pull the weed itself, it will grow back. You have to make sure you get the root as well.

The existence of these stem cells, which researchers are also calling "cancer seeds," has been hotly debated, but researchers working on mice with a form of brain cancer identified them.

"People can stop arguing," Owen Witte, cancer biologist and director of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center at UCLA, told the Los Angeles Times. "Now they can say, 'OK, the cells are here. We now need to know how to treat them.'"

The findings could lead to a new approach to cancer treatment, Cedric Blanpain, one of the study's authors and professor at the Free University of Brussels, told BBC News.

"If these cells are indeed the cells that fuel tumor growth then maybe you can target these cells," he said.

Luis Parada, who led the research that identified the seeds in mice, said the findings could be a paradigm shift in cancer research and treatment.

"Cancer stem cells change the paradigm," he told BBC News. "The goal of shrinking tumors may well turn out to be less important than targeting the cancer cells in that tumor."

Dr. Michaela Frye, a scientist with Cancer Research UK, told BBC News that the findings are an important step for cancer researchers.

"These results add even more weight to the theory that cancers are driven by a distinct group of cells called cancer stem cells," he said. "Because cancers are proving to be so complex, we don't yet know how relevant this research in mice is to humans, but it gives us new insights into how cancers might develop and why they can sometimes grow back after therapy."

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