Cancer research just took an amazing turn. In many recent discoveries that have combined to form a landmark conclusion, researchers now believe that all this time modern medicine may have been targeting the wrong cancer cells. Four decades of radiation and chemotherapy have been spent trying to shrink tumors and halt their progress, hoping that they would die off and disappear. Meanwhile, the actual root cause of cancer has slipped by unnoticed — until now.
Everybody has heard of them before, mentioned in different fields of medicine for different reasons. (Mainly for controversial, often political reasons.) They are known as “stem cells.” In a spate of major findings, scientists from around the globe have identified abnormal stem cells as being the driving force behind six cancers: blood, breast, prostate, colon, bone, and brain. This breakthrough understanding opens up new doors of possibility — and may help explain why we’ve never been able to adeptly treat cancer. It could also explain why people relapse and die, even after successful treatment.
It’s because the underlying cause of their cancer, the stem cells, was not addressed. Here’s how this might play out in the body of a patient. An ordinary tumor cell, the “lumps” we feel and see, have no ability to regenerate themselves. Instead, cancerous stem cells are the ones that can keep tumors alive by renewing themselves. Without stem cells directing the disease, tumors may just stop growing and die.
So when a patient’s tumor disappears, but then returns later on, it is likely the work of stem cells. It also sheds light on the fact that while we are better at shrinking tumors, the survival rate of cancer has remained the same; that is, it’s not getting any better.
Stem cells carry the power to regenerate themselves — to multiply forever if need be. Only in the past decade have we been able to find them and test how they work. While they could yield amazing results in medicine, they also have a negative side. Cancer is like a stem cell, able to grow without bounds, to multiply into many tumors over time. If a stem cell, then, becomes cancerous, you can see the grim potential here for it spreading.
Add to this the fact that stem cells also appear to resist radiation, which is the world’s standard cancer therapy. And even if doctors pump chemotherapy drugs into the body, cancerous stem cells can survive.
All of this means that scientists need to reevaluate the current methods of cancer treatment. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s a promising advance. It opens up an entirely new field of cancer research; one far different than what we’ve been doing thus far — and as death rates prove, we haven’t been finding the answers we need.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute is about to set in motion an array of studies on stem cells. In Canada, this will be the priority for cancer research funding. All across the world, meetings are being held to address this question and what it means. It could mean that one day soon humankind can find a cancer therapy with the long-term ability to eliminate this terrible disease.