It’s increasingly believed among scientists that nearly every cancer contains small populations of highly dangerous cells — cancer stem cells — that can initiate a cancer, drive its progression, and create endless copies of themselves. On the theory that targeting these cells might be an effective therapeutic strategy, researchers around the world have begun isolating stem cells from various kinds of cancers. Now, for the first time, researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) have found a strategy that selectively targets cancer stem cells for destruction, successfully halting one of the deadliest cancers — melanoma — in mice.
The findings, reported in a cover article in the Jan. 17 issue of Nature, also add credence to the hypothesis that stem cells drive cancer progression.
Melanoma is a highly aggressive and difficult-to-treat cancer because it is resistant to virtually all drugs. In 2007, an estimated 59,940 cases were diagnosed in the United States with about 8,110 deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute, and the percentage of people developing melanoma in the United States has more than doubled in the past 30 years.
Markus Frank, a researcher in the Transplantation Research Center of Children’s and BWH who conducted the study in collaboration with George Murphy, chief of dermatopathology at BWH, said, “This study lays the groundwork for a possible treatment, showing that targeting stem cells may be a viable strategy in cancer.”