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05 June 2014
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.
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