Colon cancer researchers target stem cells, discover viable new therapeutic path

Dr. John Dick, Senior Scientist, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and a team of researchers at the Princess Margaret have discovered a new approach to treating colorectal cancer. Credit: UHN

Scientists and surgeons at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre have discovered a promising new approach to treating colorectal cancer by disarming the gene that drives self-renewal in stem cells that are the root cause of disease, resistance to treatment and relapse. Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the Western world.

"This is the first step toward clinically applying the principles of to control cancer growth and advance the development of durable cures," says principal investigator Dr. John Dick about the findings published online today in Nature Medicine.

Dr. Dick pioneered the cancer stem cell field by first identifying (1994) and colon (2007). He is also renowned for isolating a human blood stem cell in its purest form – as a single stem cell capable of regenerating the entire blood system – paving the way for clinical use (2011). Dr. Dick holds a Canada Research Chair in Stem Cell Biology and is a Senior Scientist at University Health Network's Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine. He is also a Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto, and Director of the Cancer Stem Cell Program at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.

In pre-clinical experiments, the research team replicated human in mice to determine if specifically targeting the stem cells was clinically relevant. First, the researchers identified that the gene BMI-1, already implicated in maintaining stem cells in other cancers, is the pivotal regulator of colon cancer stem cells and drives the cycle of self-renewal, proliferation and cell survival. Next, the team used an existing small-molecule inhibitor to successfully block BMI-1, thus demonstrating the clinical relevance of this approach.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

Lead author Dr. Antonija Kreso writes: "Inhibiting a recognized regulator of self-renewal is an effective approach to control tumor growth, providing strong evidence for the clinical relevance of self-renewal as a biological process for therapeutic targeting."

Dr. Dick explains: "When we blocked the BMI-1 pathway, the stem cells were unable to self-renew, which resulted in long-term and irreversible impairment of tumour growth. In other words, the cancer was permanently shut down."

Surgeon-scientist Dr. Catherine O'Brien, senior co-author of the study says: "The clinical potential of this research is exciting because it maps a viable way to develop targeted treatment for colon cancer patients. It is already known that about 65% have the BMI-1 biomarker. With the target identified, and a proven way to tackle it, this knowledge could readily translate into first-in-human trials to provide more personalized cancer medicine."

More information: Paper: dx.doi.org/10.1038/nm.3418

Related Stories

Clinical importance of leukemia stem cells validated

Aug 28, 2011

Cancer scientists have long debated whether all cells within a tumour are equal or whether some cancer cells are more potent - a question that has been highly investigated in experimental models in the last decade. Research ...

Recommended for you

Discovery could lead to new cancer treatment

Aug 29, 2014

A team of scientists from the University of Colorado School of Medicine has reported the breakthrough discovery of a process to expand production of stem cells used to treat cancer patients. These findings could have implications ...

Is the HPV vaccine necessary?

Aug 29, 2014

As the school year starts in full swing many parents wonder if their child should receive the HPV vaccine, which is recommended for girls ages 11-26 and boys 11-21. There are a lot of questions and controversy around this ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

manifespo
not rated yet Dec 03, 2013
Awesome insight and execution!
Lead author Dr. Antonija Kreso writes: "Inhibiting a recognized regulator of self-renewal is an effective approach to control tumor growth, providing strong evidence for the clinical relevance of self-renewal as a biological process for therapeutic targeting."
Dr. Dick explains: "When we blocked the BMI-1 pathway, the stem cells were unable to self-renew, which resulted in long-term and irreversible impairment of tumour growth. In other words, the cancer was permanently shut down."