Uncertainties Abound Regarding Cancer 'Stem Cells'

Cancer-initiating cells present a challenging target for chemotherapeutic drugs

MONDAY, Oct. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Although so-called cancer stem cells may be an interesting potential focus for anti-cancer therapies, a number of these cells' properties need to be better understood before drugs can be developed to target them, according to a commentary published in the Oct. 3 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Richard P. Hill, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto in Canada, and Roberto Perris, Ph.D., of the University of Parma in Italy, address misconceptions and define some important characteristics of these cells in their paper.

For starters, the term "cancer stem cell" may be a misnomer. As they're currently defined, cancer stem cells aren't multipotent -- a characteristic of normal stem cells that allow them to differentiate into different cell phenotypes that cross lineages and embryonic germ layers. As a result, a better term for these cells is "tumor-initiating cell" or "cancer-initiating cell," according to the authors.

In addition, it is unclear whether cancer-initiating cells have a stable molecular phenotype over time, and whether the processes researchers use are specific enough to unambiguously identify cancer-initiating cells from within a tumor.

"These uncertainties must be considered in the development and testing of compounds targeted against putative cancer stem cells. Tumors apparently contain very few cancer stem cells, so that when tests of compounds targeted to such cells are designed, short-term response trials may not be informative and long-term trials must be planned, particularly if the drugs could also kill normal stem cells," the authors conclude.

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