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Cancer Center Launches Cancer Stem Cell Research Program

By Nancy Stringer | August 17, 2006

One of the newest and most promising areas of research involves cancer stem cells. These are recently identified, rare, primitive cells that appear to have the capacity to constantly replenish the supply of cancerous cells and to keep the cancer thriving.

Normal stem cells have the ability to both self-renew and differentiate; in other words, to divide in half with one half remaining a stem cell, and the other half maturing into a specific kind of cell, to form skin, blood, lung tissue or any other component of the body.  Scientists are now finding that this self-renewal process is recapitulated by cancers that contain “cancer” stem cells - the only cells in the cancer with the capacity to both self-renew and differentiate to create the tumor.

This concept – that cancer arises from a few slowly dividing stem cells rather than the rapidly dividing mature cells that make up the majority of cancerous cells – is gaining momentum based upon tantalizing findings in the last few years. Reports describing rare subsets of cells in acute myelogenous leukemia, breast cancer and brain cancer demonstrated, in mice, that only those cells were capable of propagating the disease.

Chancellor Fox
Catriona Jamieson

Now, as part of its plan to build a world-class cancer stem cell program, the Moores UCSD Cancer Center has recruited one of that field’s rising stars, Catriona Jamieson, M.D., Ph.D. She joined UCSD recently as assistant professor of hematology/oncology in the Department of Medicine, and director of the Cancer Center’s stem cell research program.

“Rapid cell division is a hallmark of cancer, and chemotherapy attacks rapidly dividing cells,” said Dr. Jamieson. “But are those our true target? I believe current treatments are targeting the end product but missing the manufacturing plant. This may be why cancer recurs, often just months after treatment.” 

In August 2004, Dr. Jamieson and her team, then at Stanford, discovered cancer stem cells in chronic myelogenous leukemia, and published laboratory results that hinted at how they develop. Only about one in 10,000 of the leukemia cells would indefinitely generate new cancer cells to keep the cancer growing.

“These cancer stem cells had activated a gene that allowed them to make more of themselves, or to self-renew, indefinitely,” she said. “We believe that these self-renewing cancer stem cells are the cells we need to target.”
 
The challenge will be to create a drug that will very specifically block the function that turns the cell cancerous, but does not block the cell’s other, normal functions. This is no small task, but toward that end Dr. Jamieson has gathered together some of the best minds in stem cell biology – from UCSD, Salk, Burnham Institute, Scripps Research Institute and elsewhere – to share ideas and perspectives, and even supplies and equipment. By functioning as a single, cohesive unit, the La Jolla Cancer Stem Cell Working Group will spawn new ideas and collaborations, and will save time and money in the quest to bring new drugs to the clinic.

“I’m excited about the potential of this group. The breadth and depth of knowledge in cancer and stem cell biology and this kind of opportunity for collaboration is among the reasons I was so attracted here,” she said. “And the new Cancer Center building fosters idea and information sharing, which is the engine of scientific progress.”

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