Understanding cancer stem cells offers the potential to transform the way we tackle cancer, giving researchers the knowledge needed to investigate new targeted cancer therapies and understand resistance to current gold standard treatments.
Cancer stem cells represent a small proportion of the types of cell found in a tumour. Like all stem cells, they can divide and renew themselves, as well as giving rise to other cell types. Cancer stem cells are resistant to drug and radiotherapy treatments and can spread around the body to seed secondary cancers. Cancer stem cells may be present in a cancer from very early on, but they may also only appear late in the cancer development, which is why early detection and treatment offers better patient outcomes.
When the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute was launched, the concept of a cancer stem cell was a relatively new area of cancer research. The Institute’s knowledge of cancer stem cells has grown rapidly since they were established, and their research is contributing to an exciting and expanding area of science that is transforming the way we think about the development and treatment of cancer.
Catherine Hogan has been awarded £372,338 over 36 months by the Cancer Research UK early detection committee for her project Unravelling mechanisms of cell competition in pancreatic cancer initiation. Potential novel targets for early detection.
“The pancreas is composed of multiple cells types, each with a distinct function that either regulates blood sugar levels or contributes to the digestion of food. This organ is highly changeable, meaning that every cell within its tissue has the potential to reprogramme to become another cell type. This reprogramming is triggered by damage or disease of the organ, including in cancer. Our research is focused on understanding the very first stages of pancreatic cancer and how changes within cells can lead to the initiation of cancer development.
"We switch on the cancer-causing genes in cells, and then monitor the relationships between the cancer-causing cells and the normal cells around them. This will enable us to achieve a better understanding of the earliest stages of pancreatic cancer, which will lead to improved detection methods and the creation of new diagnostics.”
Gastric cancer is the third most common cause of death due to cancer worldwide, with approximately 700,000 cases diagnosed annually. A recent MRC project grant has allowed Toby Phesse to investigate the therapeutic benefit of targeting a receptor called Frizzled that transmits signals via a pathway called Wnt. This grant utalises an industrial partnership with Oncomed Pharmaceuticals to enable the Institute to perform pharmacological and genetic experiments to discover new therapies for gastric cancer.
"My research is interested in how cell signalling regulates cell function in normal tissue, stem cells and tumours to gain insight into how cancer is initiated, grows and spreads. We then use this information to identify novel targets and strategies to treat various cancers, with a focus on the Wnt signalling pathway and gastrointestinal and prostate."
Inaccuracy of initial tests for colorectal cancer are putting patients at unnecessary risk, highlighting vital need for the development of precise and non-invasive testing. A grant of over £400,000 is helping Dr Lee Parry and his team at the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute to bring these closer to a reality.
"Fifty percent of colorectal cancer cases are preventable. We are investigating how diet, gut bacteria and environmental impacts on intestinal stem cells, which are the cells that originate colorectal cancer. By understanding the behaviour of these cells, we can improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of this type of cancer.
“We believe that we can use a biological agent called SL7207 to detect whether colorectal cancer cells are present. We can administer this agent and if this is persistently present in the faecal testing, this is indicative of pre-cancerous colonic polyps."
Florian Siebzehnrubl has been awarded £626,494 by the Medical Research Council to investigate how a protein called FGF2 influences different types of glioblastoma cells within a given tumour.
"We are researching the way in which FGF2 affects these different types of glioblastoma cells in different ways, with some becoming more aggressive in direct response to FGF2. By understanding the function of FGF2 and its receptors, we can get a better understanding of the aggressive nature of glioblastoma and use this to help with the development of new treatments. This will help us to focus more targeted drugs at these specific receptors, and importantly, provides a means of predicting which patients would benefit most from this therapy."