Scientists today have a better understanding of the genetics of cancer, but they've never been able to track how single cancerous cells form tumours in the body, or work out how tumours grow back seemingly from nowhere. New research, however, sheds some light on that problem — and it suggests that tumours are fuelled by cancer stem cells.
The research, which is in fact work from three independent studies, suggests that just a small subset of cells drives tumour growth. As a result, curing cancer once and for all may require those cells to be eliminated.
The work has focused on tumours of the brain, the gut and the skin, using genetic techniques to track stem cells in animal models. The researchers found that tumours seem to arise from single stem cells and their presence within a tumour is responsible for fuelling its growth. For a detailed analysis of the three studies and how their findings fit together, this Nature news article is well worth a read.
While in the past the theory of cancer stem cells has been a controversial one, these three studies provide some overwhelming evidence that support its accuracy. But while the basic idea of stem cells driving cancer might be correct, their modes of operation remain mysterious and no doubt extremely complex.
Despite the fact that this is cutting-edge science and has so far only been evidenced in three tumour types, it's difficult to deny the potential impact the findings could have. The presence of cancer stem cells is probably responsible for the regrowth of tumours from nowhere — so if further studies confirm the existence of cancer stem cells in other types of the disease, it could represent a paradigm shift in treatment.
Instead of focusing on the tumour as a whole — doctors currently view controlling or reducing tumour size as a measure of success — the focus could shift instead to merely targeting the correct types of cancer stem cells. While such techniques remain some way off, it's an incredibly exciting turning point in the future of cancer research. [Nature]
Image: G. Driessens