About cancer stem cells

Understanding cancer stem cells offers the potential to transform the way we tackle this disease, giving us the knowledge to investigate novel and targeted cancer therapies.

Our knowledge of cancer stem cells has grown rapidly since the launch of the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute. Here we hope to answer some of your questions that relate to cancer stem cells.

Types of stem cells

Stem cells are cells that are required for the maintenance of healthy tissue, especially in tissues where cells continually need to be replaced.

They are undifferentiated cells, meaning that they are aren’t specialised like a skin cell or a liver cell. Stem cells can slowly self-renew and divide to produce an average of one stem cell and one new cell, known as a transit-amplifying or progenitor cell. This progenitor cell can then differentiate to form the functioning cells for specific tissue types.

This differentiation process is guided by signals controlled by the genes within the cell, as well as signals secreted from other cells surrounding it.

Cancer cells, stained green.
Bile duct cancer cells.

Embryonic stem cells

Embryonic stem cells and stem cells in adults differ in the number of cell types they can form. An embryonic stem cell has the ability to change itself into every one of the several hundred different types of cells that make up the human body. These cells, which form the early stage embryo were discovered by Cardiff University President Professor Sir Martin Evans, Mario R. Capecchi, and Oliver Smith in 2007.

Somatic stem cells

An adult stem cell, called a somatic stem cell, has a limited range of cells that it can differentiate into. In many tissues, they serve as internal repair system to replenish cells, as cells are lost through wear and tear, injury or disease.

Induced pluripotent stem cells

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells are adult stem cells that have been grown in special conditions to reprogramme them in a laboratory, so that they can form a wider range of new cell types.

Cancer stem cells

Cancer stem cells, like all stem cells, are unspecialised and can divide and renew themselves, as well as giving rise to specialised cells.

Brain cells, including astrocytes and neurons, in a stem cell differentiation experiment.

This type of stem cells represent a small proportion of the types of cell found in a tumour, and can replicate tumour cells, causing tumours to grow and spread. Cancer stem cells are considered resistant to drug and radiotherapy treatments, and therefore can be left behind after the course of cancer treatment comes to an end, allowing the tumour to regrow and spread around the body.

Cancer stem cell research

Cancer stem cells offer a new avenue to treat cancer, if we can understand these cells, we can target them to effectively prevent cancer metastasis and relapse.

Evidence shows that cancer stem cells are crucial in the formation of tumours. Not only can they renew themselves, but they can generate all of the other types of cells that are found in a tumour. If we can treat cancer by eliminating the cancer stem cells in the tumour, we will be able to treat cancer in a specialised and targeted manner.

At the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute, we aim to understand the processes of these cells, and beat their mechanisms of drug resistance. Through this, we can develop treatments that target these cancer stem cells, to create more effective cancer therapies.

Epithelial cells.
Epithelial cells.