Understanding cancer causing cells

Every organ and type of tissue in the body contains a small number of what scientists call “adult” or “tissue” stem cells. Since most cells in the body live for just a short time, the body needs to keep making new cells to replace them. Adult stem cells ensure a continuous supply of new cells to replace old cells that wear out or are destroyed.

Cancer stem cells are the small number of cells within a tumour that drive the tumours growth, much in the same way cell stems create new cells, only in tumours the cells are cancerous.

The Challenge

  • Brain tumours, breast cancer and leukemias are among the most common and lethal cancers that affect Canadians
  • Current treatments are often ineffective because they do not target the rare cancer initiating cells – also known as cancer stem cells – that are responsible for tumour growth and spread
  • Better understanding is essential to the development of new and more effective anti-cancer therapies

The Research Solution

  • Ontario is a hot bed for cancer stem cell research. In fact, the cancer stem cells involved in leukemia, colon and brain tumours, were discovered right here in this province
  • New tools and technologies are being developed that can quickly scan cells and identify the start of diseases, helping with early disease diagnoses. These tools also allow for quick tissue sample analysis, enabling better monitoring of the treatment to assess whether it’s working and allow changes along the way
  • Ontarian researchers also received significant funding in 2009 through joint projects with researchers in California to look at the development of new drugs to treat leukemia and cancer-initiating cells in solid tumour cancers

Successes to date and potential impact

  • Research has led to the development of a new technique to grow cancer stem cells in the lab, facilitating international research in this area
  • Researchers working in this area identified a population of colon cancer stem cells, improving understanding of the disease and helping to better research ways to treat, or even prevent it
  • A new mouse model was developed for leukemia that can be used to identify human leukemia stem cells and study how these cells change as the disease progresses
  • More effective therapies as a result of better understanding and research would improve outcomes for the 174,000 Canadians diagnosed annually with cancer and help reduce the 76,000 deaths that occur annually

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