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The only centre in Europe completely focussed on cancer stem cell research

05 June 2014

European Cancer Stem Cell microscope - small

Cancer remains one of the major challenges in terms of life expectancy and is recognised as the second largest cause of mortality within the EU, accounting for 28% of all deaths in 2010. Although we are slowly improving 5 year survival rates for many tumour types, we still do not have effective therapies for all tumours and we still do not properly understand the processes that underlie resistance to therapy and tumour relapse.

One concept that may aid in tackling these problems is that of the ‘cancer stem cell’. Evidence from many different laboratories is now challenging the conventional view that all tumours are homogeneous, with clear examples of cancers that are driven by a small population of ‘cancer stem cells’.

As the only centre in Europe completely focussed on cancer stem cell research, the driving force behind the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute is to change the current situation of inefficient drug development and poor comprehension of some cancerous tumours. "For some tumours, our understanding of how to treat patients is so woeful that they are currently virtually untreatable," said Prof Alan Clarke, Director of the Institute. "From our improved basic knowledge, the aim will be to develop new therapies which can be shown to make a real difference in the clinic and transform the survival rates for patients suffering from a range of cancer types."

The importance of the cancer stem cell concept may also extend beyond implications for the growth and relapse of the primary tumour, as these cells have also been implicated in the spreading of the tumour around the body - a process termed metastasis which is the stage of disease most closely associated with lethality. If this is correct, it may be possible to treat cancer more effectively by concentrating on the stem cells alone, rather than all the cells in the tumour, as current treatments do, opening up the possibilities of being able to develop tailored therapies or ‘personalised medicine’ for patients another step closer.

All of this, of course, requires substantial investment from both industrial and academic partners. Currently this is derived from a range of funding streams, none of which is wholly devoted to the cancer stem cell concept. The key challenge must be to coalesce efforts across the EU to truly ascertain the value and usefulness of the cancer stem cell notion.