Oncologist highlights need to crack cancer stem cells

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Oncology Prof. Max Wicha, director of the University of Michigan Health System’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, speaks at the first event of the Health Science Lecture Series. Buy this photo

By Stephanie Dilworth, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 20, 2013

On Wednesday, Oncology Prof. Max Wicha, director of the University of Michigan Health System’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, gave a lecture entitled “Cancer stem cells: A new frontier in cancer research,” the first in the University’s Health Science Lecture Series sponsored by the Taubman Institute, the Program in Biology and several student organizations.

The lecture series aims to inform the public of important health information from University experts in medical and life science. Wicha’s lecture focused on the theory that cancers are driven by cells with stem-cell properties. He is optimistic that understanding the intricacies of cancer stem cells will aid cancer treatments.

“In order to eradicate cancer, we have to eradicate cancer stem cells,” Wicha said.

Wicha explained that recent developments of cancer therapies have given researchers the ability to slow cancer development. However, while shrinking cancer makes patients feel better, Wicha said it is not enough to prolong the lives of patients.

“The problem is, just shrinking cancer will not make patients live longer,” he said.

Wicha developed the cancer stem cell hypothesis, which argues that cancers arise from cells with dysregulated self-renewal. While it was previously believed that any cell in your body could become cancerous, the reality, according to Wicha, is that only certain cells in your body are prone to become malignant.

Much of these findings were discovered in recent research that involved growing human breast cells in Petri dishes and in mice in research labs. Though the research is promising, Wicha said much more needs to be done, especially for patients with advanced stages of cancer.

“The goal is to cure cancer,” Wicha said. “In the common cancers, we’ve made really good progress in treating early stages of it, but in advanced cancers we haven’t made nearly enough progress."

Marty Fischhoff, the managing director of the Taubman Medical Research Institute, said he is impressed by Wicha’s research.

“(Wicha) is one of the leading figures in cancer research,” Fischhoff said. “When he first came out with the hypothesis about cancer stem cells it was revolutionary and a lot of people didn’t believe it. Now the rest of the world has come over. It’s not universally accepted but most people believe it’s true.”

Several student groups helped organize the series. LSA sophomore Shivani Deshmukh said she found Wicha’s talk intellectually stimulating. Desmukh is a member of the Society of Biology, the Student Society of Stem Cell Research and the University’s chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma, a professional chemical fraternity.

“Our entire goal of this lecture series is to have medicine and health-related TED-like talks,” Deshmukh said. “I think this is really good because stem cells are a huge part of our society. Finally the technology is coming to it. We are literally on the brink of cancer research.”