Scientists find quicker way to study cancer drivers

LONDON - British scientists have found a new and faster way of studying a crucial class of cancer cells, called cancer stem cells, which they say should speed up work on developing drugs against them.

By (Reuters)

Published: Tue 26 Jan 2010, 3:31 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 5:18 AM

The researchers from Oxford University developed a way of obtaining samples rich in cancer stem cells from bowel cancer cell lines and keeping them in a lab — a method which allows cells to be repeatedly tested against possible drug treatments.

“Working with cell lines is a much more convenient way to study these cells than using samples taken from human patients or using animal models,” said Walter Bodmer, who led the study.

“We can now evaluate anti-cancer drugs better to see whether they attack cancer stem cells. If you don’t attack these cells, the cancer can grow out again.”

Cancer stem cells are master cells which are resistant to conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy and may be the reason many tumours grow back.

They are called cancer stem cells because, like stem cells present in other parts of the body, they drive cell growth by either replicating themselves or developing into various different cell types.

The researchers, writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, said that until now, identifying cancer stem cells has meant using cancer biopsies from human patients. Scientists then needed to enrich the number of cancer stem cells in samples and wait to see if they produced tumours in mice.

This is a long process, and the samples can’t then be used in further experiments, they said in the study.

But with the new technique, work on stem cells could be far quicker and more productive, they said, allowing for repeatable, high-speed screens of drugs, as well as basic studies on the nature of cancer stem cells and their role in producing tumours.

“In the long term, it should allow the development of more useful, safe and specific drugs targeting cancer stem cells,” said Trevor Yeung of the university’s Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, who also worked on the study.

The study also found that cancer stem cells are not necessarily just a small subset of cells within a tumour, as was previously thought.

The researchers found the proportion of cancer stem cells within different bowel cancers, for example, can vary widely, with larger amounts of cancer stem cells found in more aggressive tumours.

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