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Stem Cell Trial shows Promise against Breast Cancer

University of Michigan scientists have launched groundbreaking clinical trials that researchers hope will lead to a breakthrough in treatment for cancer with stem cells. The trials are being conducted on women with advanced stage breast cancer and attempt to target the cancer’s stem cells, which are believed to be resistant to traditional therapies and the fuel behind cancer’s spread.

  • By using experimental drugs to block these cancer stem cells, doctors hope the tumors will shrink or at least stop spreading and will lead to better ways to treat and possibly cure the disease that is the nation’s 2nd leading cause of death.

U-M Comprehensive Cancer Director Max Wicha, who launched the trials to block breast cancer stem cells has since begun collaborating with other scientists to make Michigan a leader in the field.

  • Wicha’s trial launched in 2003 after work by Canadian scientist John Dick, who discovered stem cells in some human leukemia’s that were the malignant cells driving cancer in the blood;
  • Wicha, along with U-M stem cell researchers Sean Morrison and Michael Clarke, now at Stanford University, wondered if all cells were the same in more common, solid tumors. They put cells that acted like stem cells and those that didn’t into mice and found that only the cells that acted like stem cells created tumors. The research resulted in the first discovery of stem cells in breast cancer in 2003;
  • Since then, Wicha said, further studies have revealed more about cancer stem cells, including that they are highly resistant to traditional cancer treatments and also responsible for the spread of tumors and death;
  • “In breast cancer, we have very good results of getting rid of the primary cancer with surgery or radiation therapy but what is lethal to a number of women who actually die of breast cancer is the spread of the cancer,” Wicha said;
  • “These cancer stem cells are the cells that are metastatic. That’s why we had to develop new approaches to target these cancer stem cells if we are going to cure more women with breast cancer and other types of cancer.”

Wicha has launched 2 other clinical trials targeting cancer stem cells, including 1 in collaboration with Karmanos Cancer Institute’s Dr. Patricia LoRusso, regarded as a lead researcher in early P1 clinical cancer trials. U-M scientists also have discovered stem cells in cancer of the pancreas, head and neck. Other clinic trials are about to launch and the university is among the few nationally that is committed to this type of research. (HWM and K Kozlowski, The Detroit News)