University researchers are part of a groundbreaking study that investigates the theory that small populations of stem cells exist within cancers.

The researchers hope to discover what the cancerous stem cells need to function so scientists can develop ways to prevent them from getting necessary nutrients.

When adult stem cells mutate and become cancer cells, they lose their normal properties and begin to divide out of control. Chemotherapy kills cancerous cells produced by stem cells but doesn’t kill the stem cells.

After the treatment ends, the stem cells can begin the process all over again.

The clinical trial to test the theory combines chemotherapy with an inhibitor – a plug that blocks vital pathways from reaching the stem cell – in patients with advanced breast cancer.

The first round of treatments is designed to ensure that the treatment is not harmful and to see whether the technique will help patients – who have exhausted all other conventional treatments – will live longer.

Max Wicha, director of the study and the Cancer Center, said his team hopes to try the method on stem cells for all other cancers within the next few years.”

“The purpose of the new therapies is to try to hit the roots of the cancer,” Wicha said.

Although adult stem cells are not the same as the controversial embryonic stem cells because they come from a specific tissue or organ and don’t require the destruction of an embryo, some think that the research is too risky.

Some have argued that some scientists are too blinded by the potential of stem cell research, but Wicha said an innovative route is necessary to combat cancer.

“There is so much research using traditional chemotherapy,” Wicha said. “Billions of dollars are spent on treatments, many of which just don’t work. There will always be skeptics.”

Wicha said stem cell research is still yet to definitively prove its worth on human patients.

“In order to convince them this is better, we have to prove it,” Wicha said. “Patients have to really benefit.”

Jim Shayman, associate vice president of research for the health sciences in the University Health System, praised the research as innovative.

“Dr. Wicha and his group have been leaders in testing this hypothesis and the initiation of a clinical trial represents an exciting step in this process,” he said.

Researchers are awaiting FDA approval, which they expect to arrive within one or two months. The study itself will take about six months.

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