A Counterpoint to Cancer Stem Cell Theory

The theory that cancers spawn from and are supported by a comparatively small population of characteristically broken stem cells has enjoyed some success in recent years. By uncovering and attacking cancer stem cells using a new generation of precisely targeted therapies, scientists hope that cancer might be defeated with far less trouble and cost than in the past. Despite promising research results, this is still a hotly debated topic, and on the other side of the fence can be found good evidence to oppose the existence of cancer stem cells. But you might want to look back in the archives for an introduction to the topic first:

If you're ready to continue, let me point you to disappointing evidence from researchers investigating the biology of melanomas - which look to be 100% cancer stem cell masses, meaning there are few immediate prospects for a short-cut in destroying these cells run riot:

The researchers write in the May 14 issue of the journal Cell that - contrary to other published reports - melanoma does not appear to follow the hierarchic cancer stem cell model, where a single malignant "mother cell" both reproduces to produce new mother cells and differentiates to produce the bulk tumor population. Instead, all melanoma cells equally harbor cancer stem cell potential and are capable of inducing new tumors. Their findings reveal the unique biology of melanoma, and suggest that melanoma requires a new therapeutic approach.

"Targeting only the bulk tumor population, as most conventional anticancer therapies do, is pointless in melanoma, in that each cell can act as a seed for the tumors to rebound," said Meenhard Herlyn, D.V.M., D.Sc., professor and leader of Wistar's Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program. "The other implication is that we should stop hunting for a cancer stem cell, because it won't be there."

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At the moment, the researchers do not suggest that the cancer stem cell model is wrong in any other tumors; their results apply only to melanoma, which may represent a special case.

We can hope that this is a special case - though if one form of cancer can do this, there is every reason to expect that some other types do so as well.

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