Study Uncovers Powerful Anti-cancer Compound

A new study conducted on mice has uncovered a chemical compound that effectively targets cancer stem cells – the key cells that spread malignant tumours and are usually resistant to treatment.

In a study published in the journal Cell, a group of medical researchers said they had discovered that a compound called salinomycin directly targeted cancer stem cells.

“Evidence is accumulating rapidly that cancer stem cells are responsible for the aggressive powers of many tumours,” said Robert Weinberg, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and one of the study’s authors.

Cancer stem cells are rare but aggressive parts of tumours and their ability to seed new tumours while proving largely resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy makes them a key component in treating cancer patients.

“Many therapies kill the bulk of a tumour only to see it regrow,” said Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, another author of the Cell paper.

Previous attempts to study cancer stem cells have been stymied by difficulties in locating the rare cells within tumours, and the tendency of the cells to lose their key properties when grown outside of the body.

To conduct their research, the study group found a novel way to manipulate cultured breast cancer cells into cancer stem cells that retained the tendency to seed tumours and resist anti-cancer treatments.

The researchers then analyzed some 16,000 chemical compounds, looking for one that could target the cancer stem cells, eventually narrowing the field to 32, and then down to one: salinomycin.

The compound showed impressive results, both against naturally occurring and manipulated cancer stem cells, reducing the proportion of breast cancer stem cells by more than 100-fold compared to a commonly used breast cancer treatment called paclitaxel.

It also inhibited the ability of the cancer stem cells to seed new tumours when injected into mice, and slowed the growth of existing tumours in the animals.

“It wasn’t clear it would be possible to find compounds that selectively kill cancer stem cells,” said Piyush Gupta, one of the study’s lead authors and a researcher at the Broad Institute. “We’ve shown it can be done.”

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