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Research into cancer stem cells holds promise for better cancer diagnosis and treatment

Scientists from Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry have made a discovery which will make very early detection of bowel cancer possible and has the potential to improve treatment as well.

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Presenting at the UK National Stem Cell Network annual science conference, Professor Malcolm Alison, from the Institute of Cell and Molecular Science, will tell the conference that abnormal stem cells – so-called ‘cancer stem cells’ – in the gut present a useful target for the detection and treatment of bowel cancer.

Professor Alison said: “We already know that bowel cancer can begin in the stem cells that normally line the gut and exist to replace and repair the tissue that is continuously worn away during digestion. If cancer stem cells are responsible for cancer progression then this has important implications for the future early detection and treatment of cancer.

“If we can recognise the stem cells that appear to have become ‘rogue’ and may set up a tumour if left alone to do so, then it may be possible to screen for these in people who are at risk of developing bowel cancer. Early detection would make treatment much easier, less invasive and much more effective.

“Drugs could be targeted to specifically work on cancer stem cells and so provide a more direct approach for treating bowel cancer. For instance, it may be possible to kill these abnormal stem cells by triggering them to self-destruct”.

Targeted cancer treatment is an exciting prospect because it could prove more effective than current cancer therapies, provide quicker results and potentially reduce the side effects of cancer treatment. Conventional chemotherapies work by damaging rapidly dividing cells, so they work well on cells that form the bulk of the tumour but could easily miss any abnormal stem cells. Chemotherapy often attacks healthy body cells too, causing unpleasant side effects. It is possible that a more targeted treatment, such as stem cell therapy, would reduce these side effects.

Scientists are still uncertain which cells in the gut become cancer stem cells, but they are making progress in finding potential candidates for cancer stem cells. Researchers are also studying chemicals that could act as biological ‘markers’ for these stem cells.

The research is primarily funded by Barts and The London Charity.

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