New cancer drugs prove promising

Researchers of different Boston-area institutions recently discovered a chemical that worked in mice to kill aggressive cells within breast cancer cells that have the ability to form more cancerous cells.

The aggressive cancer cells, known as cancer stem cells, are thought to be the catalysts that cause cancers to grow and spread, and these are the cells that can reemerge after treatment. In general, cancer stem cells are largely resistant to current cancer therapies.

In an article by Broad Communications, Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and author of the findings published in the Aug. 13 advanced online issue of "Cell," said that there are many therapies that kill the bulk of a tumor only to see it grow anew.

"The holy grail of finding new cancer drugs would be to find something that would specifically kill cancer cells but not normal cells," Cynthia Moore, ISU associate professor of biological sciences, said.

It would seem then that the researchers have seen a glimmer of their holy grail. Eventually through the screening of 30 different promising chemicals, researchers identified one chemical, salinomycin, that killed cancer stem cells.

The compound was able to reduce the number of stem cells by more than 100-fold, and reduce breast tumor growth in mice. Now only more research will tell if the chemical will be fit for the use of humans.

"I think it would definitely give them more hope. People are looking for any new treatments," Julie Peterson, junior dance performance and elementary education major, said.

However, studying cancer stem cells was difficult as they are few and far between and do not grow well outside the body. This limited the amount available for analysis, slowing down research.

Researchers were finally able to beat this obstacle thanks to recent findings that suggested a way to generate in the laboratory large numbers of cells with stem cell-like qualities.

"We screen thousands and thousands of drugs. Most don’t show progress....We have the technology now to screen a lot of drugs simultaneously," Moore said.

While scientists seem to have found a better treatment for breast cancer, there still remain hundreds of different cancers.

Moore said, "One important point is that cancer includes more than 100 different diseases that are all cancers, but it is unlikely that the same drug will affect different cancers in the same way."

In fact, Moore felt prevention is a better way to go.

"If there was some way to prevent the initial cell from starting to divide and become a cancer that would be great. The problem is detection. Once it starts multiplying that first cell isn’t going to work for you. If you could stop that first cell from becoming cancer that would be perfect," Moore said.

However, Peterson said, "I think both are really important [prevention and new drugs]. Cancer is definitely a problem in our society so it’s good to find a cure."

Nevertheless, the Boston-area researchers continue their work in the hopes of developing a drug for humans. In an article by Broad Communications, Piyush Gupta, a researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and co-author of the study said that their work revealed biological effects of targeting stem cells and moreover, it suggested a general approach to finding anti-cancer therapies that could be applied to any solid tumor maintained by cancer stem cells.

"It’s possible, but there is an awful lot we don’t know. If the answer was easy we would have figured it out a long time ago," Moore said.

Two different institutions conducted cancer stem cell research. The Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research is a nonprofit, independent research and educational institution.

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard was founded to empower a new generation of creative scientists to transform medicine with new genome-based knowledge.

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