Finding a way to defeat cancer stem cells

Dr Bridget Robinson

Stem cells are generally viewed in a positive light. They are the basic cellular building blocks of the body with the ability to divide and develop into diverse specialised tissue types like kidney, liver, heart and brain.

However there are some stem cells that cause disease, specifically cancer stem cells. These cells are usually resistant to chemotherapy, so even if treatment destroys nearly all the cells in a tumour, the cancer can regrow from the stem cells.

Research on cancer stem cells has focused on finding their Achilles Heel, which could be targeted for therapy. At the forefront of this research in New Zealand is Clinical Oncologist Professor Bridget Robinson of the Christchurch School of Medicine. She has been researching breast cancer stem cells with the help of a Cancer Research Trust NZ grant.

Breast cancer is individual to the patient and the goal of cancer doctors is to tailor treatments to achieve the best outcome. One factor that is thought to determine the success of treatment of breast cancer is the type and location of the cancer stem cells that remain within the tumour after treatment.

The Christchurch Cancer Society Tissue Bank and the Christchurch Breast Cancer Registry gave Dr Robinson and her team the opportunity to examine 94 breast cancers removed when women had their surgery. There are several markers of cancer stem cells and the researchers found that different markers were associated with better or worse outcomes for the patients. The location of the cancer stem cells was also found to be important and different types of stem cells were seen in areas of more or less oxygen.

Dr Robinson believes that the application of the new information from her lab and from others overseas, will soon result in more sophisticated diagnoses and help tailor treatment specifically to patients’ needs.

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