Scientists improve cancer research techniques

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Researchers at the University of Oxford, England, have published details of an improved method for growing cancer stem cells in the laboratory. They hope that the news will lead to faster progress in developing cancer treatment drugs.

Learning how to tackle cancer stem cells is important for scientists because these cells may be the reason that tumours grow back after standard treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, as they can self-replicate or develop into other cell types. Trevor Yeung, one of the researchers from the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, explained the importance of tackling cancer stem cells: "It's like trying to weed the garden. It's no good just chopping off the leaves, we need to target the roots to stop the weeds coming back."

If we could target treatments against [cancer stem] cells specifically, we should be able to eradicate cancer completely.

—Trevor Yeung, University of Oxford

The approach until now has been to take samples of cancer from a patient, then improve the number of stem cells in each sample before seeing whether tumours were produced in mice. Not only was this a slow process, but the samples could only be used once. In the new method, details of which were published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers have learned how to extract samples that have high numbers of cancer stems cells from bowel cancer cell lines (cells grown in a laboratory). Working with laboratory-grown cells enables drugs to be tested on them more quickly and repeatedly.

The research also showed that the proportion of cancer stem cells varies between bowel cancers, with more aggressive tumours having a higher proportion. It had previously been thought that cancer stem cells were only a small part of the cells within a tumour.

Sir Walter Bodmer, who led the study, said "We can now evaluate anti-cancer drugs better to see whether they attack cancer stem cells. If you don't attack these cells, the cancer can grow out again." Yeung said "If we could target treatments against these cells specifically, we should be able to eradicate cancer completely." He added that the research "should allow the development of more useful, safe and specific drugs targeting cancer stem cells."

Bodmer, 74, is a former Director General of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. He was later Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and has been a professor at Oxford as well as Stanford University. He was knighted in 1986.