FRIDAY, Jan. 29 (HealthDay News) -- New ways of identifying and studying cancer stem cells in the lab could accelerate understanding of the cells and lead to the development of drugs that target them, British researchers say.
"Cancer stem cells drive the growth of a tumor. If we could target treatments against these cells specifically, we should be able to eradicate the cancer completely," Dr. Trevor Yeung, of Oxford University's Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, said in a university news release.
"Radiotherapy and chemotherapy work against all rapidly dividing cells," he explained. "But there is increasing evidence that cancer stem cells are more resistant than other cells to this treatment. Cancer stem cells that have not been eradicated can lead to later recurrence of cancer."
Yeung and colleagues developed a new method of harvesting samples rich in cancer stem cells from bowel cancer cell lines and maintaining them in simple cell cultures in the lab. They used established cell lines, known as biological markers, to isolate the cancer stem cells, which were then collected and placed in largely standard cell culture conditions.
The researchers said this approach could change the way that research is conducted on stem cell cancer lines and should enable repeatable, large-scale screening of drugs. It would also assist in efforts to characterize cancer stem cells and their roles in tumor growth.
"Working with cell lines is a much more convenient way to study these cells than using samples taken from human patients or using animal models," the study's leader, Sir Walter Bodmer, said in the news release. "We can now evaluate anti-cancer drugs better to see whether they attack cancer stem cells."
The researchers also determined that cancer stem cells aren't necessarily just a small subset of cells within a tumor, as had been widely believed.
"People have assumed that cancer stem cells made up a small proportion of the cells in a tumor, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not correct," Yeung said. "The most aggressive tumors can have a majority of cells that are cancer stem cells."
The study was slated for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more about cancer stem cells.