Cancer afflicts millions around the world each year and many go through treatment only to relapse years later. Others die from the disease and often after a great deal of suffering. It’s no surprise that cancer research is at the forefront for current medical studies. In particular stem cells are being used for cancer treatments today as well as driving current research efforts in the hopes of finding more effective cancer treatments, including the ultimate goal of a cure.
Current Stem Cell Treatments for Cancer
Adult stem cells have been used for decades to treat certain cancers through bone marrow transplants. In this therapy, the stem cells that give rise to the different blood cells in the body are transplanted into the bone marrow of the patient, where they regenerate the blood. This is a vital and often life saving treatment because chemotherapy destroys the bone marrow alongside cancer cells and the blood cells must be replenished for the patient’s treatment to be successful. It is hoped that the molecular basis for this treatment can lead to similar treatments for other forms of cancer, allowing for cancerous tissues in areas such as the brain to receive stem cells that replenish those that are damaged through radiation.
Cancer Cell Biology
Treating cancer directly is one aim of stem cell therapy, but understanding actual cancer cell biology is another important one. In fact, it’s particularly crucial because that understanding can then encourage the development of drugs and cancer specific treatments. Some of the more recent studies have shown that cancers seem to be regularly maintained by a relatively small cluster of cancer stem cells that are able to self-renew. Scientists are trying to learn more about the genes that regulate the self-renewal feature of stem cells so that drugs can be developed to destroy the cancer stem cells.
Stem Cells and Tumours
Another important focus involves identifying and isolating cancer stem cells from tumours so that researchers can look at how cancer genes are expressed. The connection between cancer stem cells and healthy ones is also being investigated in research studies.
Stem Cell Development and Cancer
Even when cancers develop in different tissues, they can still have similar genetic abnormalities. An important scientific focus is to identify all of these genetic abnormalities and develop treatments to combat the effects. To properly identify all of these abnormalities, however, scientists need to learn more about stem cell characteristics at the various developmental stages. By examining the developmental process of healthy stem cells, scientists can better gauge how abnormal differentiation occurs and may then be able to develop treatments to prevent or treat the abnormalities. An understanding of how stem cell differentiation and specialization are controlled is another fundamental development process that researchers need to grasp in hopes of creating effective cancer treatments.
Because cancer rates have significantly increased over the last century and the incidence is such that even if you do not suffer from cancer in your lifetime, you will likely know someone who does, stem cell research must continue in this area. The chance to save lives and decrease suffering is exactly the sort of motivation that should support further stem cell studies for cancer treatments.