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Hitting the Bullseye on Cancer Stem Cells

Paige Collins

Paige Collins | Thursday, June 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by Dr. Mick Bhatia has identified a unique feature of cancer stem cells that can be exploited to kill the deadly cells thought to be the reason that cancer comes back after therapy.


A team of researchers led by Dr. Mick Bhatia has identified a unique feature of cancer stem cells that can be exploited to kill the deadly cells thought to be the reason that cancer comes back after therapy. Understanding this feature will be useful for delivering more targeted cancer therapeutics to the right patients.

Their study, published today in the prestigious journal Cell Chemical Biology, reveals that an existing set of drugs is effective in killing cancer stem cells and explains how this led the team to uncovering important details about how these cells are working in human tumors.

“The drugs helped us to understand the biology. We’ve worked backwards, employing a series of drugs used in the clinic to understand a new way that cancer stem cells can be killed,” explained Dr. Bhatia.

The researchers found that a particular protein is an important actor in cancer stem cells, and that this protein allows existing drugs to work on cancer cells, causing them to die.

“This paper explains why this set of drugs is selectively affecting tumors without harming normal tissues,” added Dr. Yannick Benoit, the paper’s first author.

Dr. Bhatia hopes that this information can be used to deliver targeted therapies to the patients who would benefit from them, while sparing others from unnecessary treatments. He believes that treatment of blood and other cancers can follow the example set in breast cancer, where patients receive treatments tailored to their specific form of the disease. 

“In the case of breast cancer, other groups have found new ways to make existing drugs more effective by only giving them to people who were likely to benefit based on their specific traits and using drugs that target these traits,” explained Dr. Bhatia.

While developing a new drug takes an average of 15 years and comes with a price tag in the hundreds of millions, defining the role of existing drugs to use them better in patients will help to accelerate the process of bringing the right drugs to the right people.

This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, the Canada Research Chairs program, the Fonds de Recherche en Sante du Quebec, the Cancer Research Society, and the selfless patients who participated in this study, without whom we would be unable to make important advances in biomedical research.

Mick Bhatia

Mick Bhatia

Director and Senior Scientist