The ultimate test of our ability to treat cancer is how long and how well patients can live after diagnosis.

In recent decades, medical science has made steady progress on lifespan and quality of life for cancer sufferers. However, overall survival rates still remain low for some cancer types, and re-growth of the tumour after initial treatment remains all too common.

If we are right about cancer stem cells, they offer the possibility of transforming this rate of progress.

There is growing evidence that cancer stem cells are crucial to the formation of tumours. Not only can they renew themselves, they can generate all the other types of cells found in the tumour. Therefore, it should be possible to treat cancer more effectively by selectively eliminating the cancer stem cells within a tumour – rather than attacking all of the tumour cells, as has happened in the past.

There is much more we need to learn about cancer stem cells. We know there may be similarities between cancer stem cells and the stem cells which form the early embryo and were discovered by Cardiff University President Professor Sir Martin Evans. But there may also be differences.

Cancer stem cells have already been shown to be capable of initiating leukaemia. Work conducted here at Cardiff shows they also play a role in the onset of skin cancer. However, the situation with other types of cancer is much less clear.

The strategy of the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute is to resolve these questions. With ten Research groups made up of key international players in fundamental and translational science in multiple cancer models, we are investigating cancer stem cells in the most common cancer types, including blood, skin, colon, breast, lung, prostate, pancreatic and urological.