The promise of cancer stem cell research has reached a critical point and the University of Rochester Medical Center is establishing itself as a leader in the field by creating a Cancer Stem Cell Research Program.

The Medical Center's top scientists are collaborating to discover cures for cancer by closely examining the "master cells" of this deadly disease. This program is one of only three formal programs in the United States. The two others are at Harvard and Stanford universities.

This is a new avenue for scientists to pursue in an effort to find the underlying causes of cancer.

"Oncologists have long treated cancer by attacking the tumors, but in many cases without getting at the root of the disease - the cancer stem cells - which tend to be drug resistant and a potential cause of relapse," said Craig Jordan, Ph.D., director of Translational Research for Hematologic Malignancies at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center and associate professor of Medicine and Biomedical Genetics.

Jordan and colleagues, Monica Guzman, Ph.D., and Mark Noble, Ph.D., authored a primer on cancer stem cells in the Sept. 21 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, outlining the data available today and challenges that are ahead for scientists and oncologists.

Cancer stem cells are the first cells that undergo genetic changes to become a cancer cell and then replicate uncontrollably. Cancer stem cells are not embryonic stem cells, the focus of heated debate between politicians and scientists.

"This is an increasingly vital part of the field of stem cell research and medicine," said Noble, professor of Genetics. Noble and Jordan will co-lead the program with Hartmut "Hucky" Land, Ph.D., chair of Biomedical Genetics, along with about 25 scientists studying the genetic, metabolic and neurologic aspects of cancer stem cells.

If scientists and doctors better understand the growth and survival of cancer stem cells, it could change beliefs about how cancers spread and how tumors should be treated. The biological problem caused by cancer stem cells is that they may represent just a small fraction of all tumor cells, but they have the ability to re-create a whole tumor after other cancer cells are destroyed by treatment.

"Indeed, it may be that a failure of many current cancer drugs to kill the cancer stem cells is precisely what sets the stage for relapse," Noble said. He said developing therapies to target cancer stem cells could be the best way to truly eradicate the disease.

"Within the field of stem cell medicine, cancer stem cell research may be the one of the first efforts to have significant impact on patients," Jordan said. "Based upon the research done to date, we're beginning to see therapies designed to attack cancer stem cells."

Land is leading extensive research into genetics-based therapeutic approaches while Noble studies the biology of stem cells and cancer stem cells of the brain, along with the neurological impacts of cancer therapies. Jordan is focused on hematologic cancers and is currently developing a new therapy, utilizing a plant-derived substance, to destroy myeloid leukemia stem cells.

Their individual research projects naturally complement each other, making for a comprehensive program for the work of three research teams, Noble said.

"There's a strong group of scientists with great depth and breadth of experience here and establishing a formal program with singular focus will provide synergy that will benefit everyone," Jordan said.

The team expects to see additional scientists join the program to broaden the exploration of other cancers, including prostate, kidney and bladder cancers.


University of Rochester Medical Center

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