Max Wicha, MD, of the University of Michigan, spoke today at the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus about a new paradigm for cancer research that looks at cancer stem cells. Using the example of breast cancer, Dr. Wicha explained how targeting cancer stem cells in clinical trials and cancer treatment can directly impact survival rates of cancers.
How is a cancer stem cell different from the stem cells we hear about in the media? According to Dr. Wicha, the embryonic stem cells that provide so much promise for curing regenerative diseases are different from adult stem cells, which travel to other organs during development and do not differentiate beyond that organ. In the past, it was thought that any cell in an organ could mutate and become cancerous. Not so, said Dr. Wicha. Cancer stem cells originate in early progenitors of adult stem cells and drive the growth and spread of cancer. Destroying cells with chemotherapy or radiation treatment is like “leaving the root on a plant,” Dr. Wicha said. Effective cancer therapy needs to target cancer stem cells.
The Honorable Rush Holt (NJ), co-chair of the Biomedical Research Caucus, began the question and answer session speaking in support of funding medical research, saying, “There is a critical role for federal support here. Lobby for NSF, NASA and DOE so we have the methodology, the instrumentation and the scientists to do the research at NIH. We need more funding for basic science.”