In 2007, a team of scientists from the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center and Stanford University, led by Dr. Mark Prince, identified cancer stem cells in tumors removed from patients with head and neck cancer. Scientists believe these stem cells are the "root cause" of cancer - the cells that drive its growth and are responsible for metastasis and resistance to therapy.
Our ultimate goal is to understand how cancer stem cells arise and prevent that process from happening. This would be the cure for cancer, but achieving that goal is still a long way off. At least now we are looking at the right cells - the critical population. If our researchers can find a way to kill them, the rest of the cancer cells will die off and the cancer will fade away or, at the least, not grow.
Developing New Treatments
Everybody's cancer is a little bit different. Current treatment studies are based on general results from a large number of patients with similar tumors, even though tumors are never exactly the same. Because these studies look at the effects of treatment on all cancer cells, the results are not specific enough.
To design personalized treatment for an individual's cancer, our scientists need to understand the individual's cancer stem cells. What they really need to do is look at the genetics of the cancer stem cell, which is more precise than the genetics of all cancer cells. If our researchers can select just the cancer stem cells and study them on their own in isolation, we will be able to treat patients more effectively.
Dr. Prince and his collaborators are investigating how to stimulate a patient's immune system to destroy cancer stem cells in head and neck cancer. This research holds great promise as a new method to eradicate this critical population of cancer cells.