Researchers are excited about the possible cancer treatments that could result from a recent discovery of a new type of cells.

The University Comprehensive Cancer Center unveiled the cells, which are similar to stem cells in human breast cancer, last week. In a written statement, internal medicine Prof. Michael Clarke called it a “very promising lead.”

Cancer researchers are learning that only a small number of cancer cells actually go on to form malignant tumors. “These tumor-inducing cells have many of the properties of stem cells,” Clarke said. Stem cells show promise in many areas of medical research because of their ability to duplicate themselves. Clarke added that the stem cell-like cells found in breast cancer “make copies of themselves … and produce all the other kinds of cells in the original tumor.”

The identification of these tumor-causing cancer cells will be the starting point for the development of more effective cancer treatments. Since researchers now know these stem cell-like cancer cells are the most dangerous, they can target those cells for elimination.

This changes the focus of much cancer research and also provides medical professionals with an explanation as to why current treatments for breast cancer sometimes fail. “The goal of all our existing therapies has been to kill as many cells within the tumor as possible,” said Max Wicha, oncologist and director of the UMCCC, in a written statement. He added that the current treatments have been ineffective because they target “the wrong cells with the wrong treatments … if we are to have any real cures in advanced breast cancer, it will be absolutely necessary to eliminate these cells,” he said.

Wicha explained how new cancer treatments will be different because of this discovery. “For the first time, we can define what we believe are the important cells – the cells which determine whether the cancer will come back or be cured,” he said, “Before this, we didn’t even know there were such cells.”

Wicha and Clarke said they are hopeful that the discovery of these cells in breast cancer will lead to similar findings in other types of cancer, and ultimately, answers about how cancer develops in the human body.

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