Medical researchers at the University are continuing the quest to find a cure for cancer by collaboratively working toward developing new methods of locating and killing cancer stem cells in the body.

Max Wicha, director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, said scientists have discovered that cancer stem cells are controlled by a small number of cells in the body and the information on these cells may help provide a cure for many types of cancers.

“What we find is that many of the current therapies, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can kill the leaves of a plant, but leave the roots intact,” Wicha said. “So, in order to cure more cancers, we have to figure out ways of actually being able to attack the cancer stem cells.”

Wicha said the Cancer Center — which works with 10 schools within the University, including LSA — organizes all cancer research at the University and provides a means for collaboration amongst different disciplines in undergraduate programs, and also includes programs for high school students.

“I think that it’s very important to have people see how exciting research is, and get involved early in their careers so that they may be interested in going into science and research,” Wicha said.

Dr. Diane Simeone, professor of Surgery and Molecular and Integrative Physiology, said the center allows for students and faculty from various fields of study to work “in a multi-disciplinary manner to take care of patients,” and is a place where rapid advancements on cancer stem cell research can be made.

“We are one of the top universities in the country with regard to our level of research funding, and it’s a very collaborative environment, where people tend to work together to try to solve research problems, and I think that helps to advance the field more quickly,” she said.

Simeone and her fellow scientists were able to discover the population of stem cells that cause cancer stem cells through experiments at the center.

“What we found looking at a panel of 10 patients’ tumors, was that there were just a small subpopulation of cells that were stem cell like, and they seem to be the drivers for tumor formation,” Simeone said.

Simeone added that a life saving treatment for patients is likely to be developed soon, including two clinical trials now available to try to target cancer stem cell populations in patients battling pancreatic cancer.

Ronald Buckanovic, assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said cancer stem cells are hard to find but are believed to be a certain, exclusive group of cells present in an organ.

“We recently found that there are certain cells in ovarian cancer, which we believe are the cancer stem cells,” Buckanovic said. “People have been looking for the cancer stem cells, the hard part has been trying to identify them.”

Buckanovic said the cells in the ovary have the potential to reproduce and cause cancer stem cells. Though traditional treatments of cancer kill the majority of cancer stem cells, they do leave behind have the potential for reproduction, he said.

“We’re good at killing 99 percent of cancer cells with traditional chemotherapy, but it’s that 1 percent of cancer stem cells which makes the tumor keep coming back again and again and again,” he said. “We need to figure how to kill those rarer cells, those harder to find, harder to kill cells. If we can do that we may actually be able to cure cancer.”

Buckanovic added that the University provides a nurturing environment to conduct this type of research by providing a “very open and collaborative environment.”

“It made the work go faster, by being in a place where people were very open and willing to work together,” Buckanovic said.

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