Advancing Cancer Treatment

In many cancers studied thus far, a small population of cells called cancer stem cells self-renew to replenish the growing cancer. In order to eliminate the disease, it is these cells that chemotherapy must wipe out. Current treatments destroy cancer cells indiscriminately, draining the reservoir of cancer cells without specifically eliminating the cancer's source.

One important area of research at the institute involves learning whether all cancers have cancer stem cells. Stanford researchers are currently searching for stem cells that underlie cancers of the blood, breast, ovaries, lung, brain and bladder, among others -- making the institute the global epicenter of the cancer stem cell hunt.

Learning how cancer stem cells self-renew is the first step toward drugs that throw a wrench in the cancer propagation machine. One goal of the institute is to learn more about which proteins go awry in cancer stem cells in a broad range of cancer types. Eventually, this work could lead to new drugs that shut down these inappropriately active proteins.

For each type of cancer, it is also important to learn which genes are used in self-renewing adult stem cells compared with cancer stem cells in that same tissue. While both of these cells are capable of self-renewing, only the cancer cells go on to grow indefinitely and spread to other organs through the blood stream.

If researchers can learn which genes are mutated or used differently in the cancer cells, they can develop drugs to block that behavior without interfering with normal tissue-specific stem cells that replenish the brain, bone marrow, intestines, skin or other organs.

Research on cancer stem cells at the institute is being conducted in association with the Ludwig Center for Cancer Research and Medicine , which is a research collaboration between the institute and Stanford’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.