The James P. Wilmot Cancer Center has just instated a new cancer stem cell research program so as to be at “the forefront of upcoming milestones in the cancer research field,” Senior Instructor of Medicine in Wilmot Cancer Center Monica Guzman said. “Officially, it just launched but it has been under development for around a year.”

This state of the art program is one of only three in the nation. The other two are at Stanford and Harvard Universities.

“My view is that this presents young aspiring scientists with an unusual opportunity for exposure to cancer stem cell research in a unique environment,” Guzman said.

The stem cell program was developed following the numerous advances in cancer stem cell biology, in order to collaboratively find cures for cancer by close examination of the “master cells.”

The program is led by Director of Translational Research for Hematologic Malignancies at the Wilmot Cancer Center and Associate Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Genetics Craig Jordan, Professor of Genetics Mark Noble and Chair of Biomedical Genetics Hartmut Land. With the help of roughly 25 other scientists, these doctors will study certain aspects of cancer stem cells, such as the metabolic, genetic and neurologic aspects.

“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 – that tend to be drug resistant and a potential cause of relapse,” Jordan said. “Within the field of stem cell medicine, cancer stem cell research may be one of the first efforts to have a significant impact on patients.”

These scientists have been driven to advance their understanding of cancer due to the research showing that cancers originate and are maintained from malignant stem cells.

“Cancer stem cells are just cells that give rise to the whole tumor,” Land said.

“They are called stem cells because often these proliferating cells then differentiate to some degree and grow off with tumor heterogeneity. There is a stem cell population that drives the whole tumor.”

Current cancer drugs today are unable to kill these malicious cells, and scientists are suggesting that metastasis, which is the spreading of cancer from its origin to other parts of the body, and relapses could quite possibly be due to the failure to eliminate the cancer stem cells.

“The answers to these questions are not simple and that is why we need a multidisciplinary approach,” Land said. “And the way one addresses these questions is by genetics and cell biology and pharmacology.”

Perhaps the most rejuvenating facet of this research program is that the three co-leaders are all working on separate approaches that all are working toward a common goal: Dr. Land is focusing on genetics-based therapeutic research; Dr. Noble is leading studies in the biology of stem cells and cancer stem cells in addition to researching the neurological impacts of cancer therapies; and Dr. Jordan is heading the investigation in hematologic cancers and a new therapy to destroy myeloid leukemia stem cells.

In accordance with the startling new research concerning these cancer stem cells, views about certain types of cancer therapies have changed. The researchers realize this issue and that investigations must be done to determine how existing chemotherapy drugs affect cancer stem cells.

The ethical problems that are commonly found with stem cell research are nowhere to be found. Controversy arises when stem cells being used are embryonic stem cells, not cancer stem cells.

Jordan and his colleagues recently wrote an article for The New England Journal of Medicine in the Sept. 21 issue about cancer stem cells and the challenges that lie ahead in that field of research.

The stem cell cancer program receives funding in grants from the National Institute of Health for Dr. Noble and Dr. Jordan, as well as from the Department of Defense for Dr. Jordan. Halusic can be reached at chalusic@campustimes.org.



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