If you have ever wondered why humanity hasn’t yet found a cure for cancer, the answer is no more difficult than understanding that cancer isn’t a simple disease. It takes many forms, offering multiple manifestations within each form. The goal in recent years has shifted away from finding a general cure to looking at more specialized cures targeting different forms of cancer based on how they proliferate.
A recently announced advancement in treating bone cancer is largely due to this new philosophy. Researchers at the University of California Irvine now believe they are on the verge of a viable treatment using engineered stem cells that seek out and destroy bone cancer cells. Call them ‘search and destroy’ stem cells if you will.
At the center of their research are breast cancer bone metastases. Apparently, these metastases are very small when they first start growing. They are so small that they are very difficult to detect with current technologies. By the time they are big enough to identify, they are already causing big problems. But thanks to the researchers’ hard work, things may be about to change.
Specialized Mesenchymal Stem Cells
To create their search and destroy therapy, the researchers started with mesenchymal stem cells harvested from umbilical cord tissue. According to Utah-based Apex Biologix, mesenchymal stem cells are multi-potent cells capable of differentiating into a variety of different tissues. They can be prompted to differentiate into bone, cartilage, muscle, and even fat tissue.
The reason for choosing mesenchymal stem cells is simple: researchers wanted cells that could take on bone metastases. A stem cell incapable of differentiating into bone tissue would have been worthless in such a pursuit.
That notwithstanding, researchers engineered their search and destroy stem cells to carry both targeting agents and therapeutics. The targeting agent is what allows the cells to seek out bone metastases. The therapeutics than attack and destroy the cancer cells. Whether or not the engineered stem cells encourage the growth of new, healthy bone tissue is unclear.
A More Detailed Approach
Researchers say that their project is part of a larger effort to develop a more detailed approach to fighting cancer. As it currently stands, drug therapies are very general in nature. Cancer drugs are typically capable of doing one thing and one thing only: killing cells through toxic therapeutics. The UC Irvine researchers are trying to develop something better.
The idea is that a more detailed approach will allow medical science to eventually create custom-made treatments for individual cancer patients. Their hope is to someday be able to engineer seek and destroy cells unique to each patient’s biological details.
Maximizing Treatment Benefits
A good way to think of it is to compare cancer treatment to financial planning. Financial planners who pursue a general approach with all clients do not tend to maximize returns for those clients. So instead, they look at every aspect of a client’s circumstances before creating detailed plans to help that person reach his or her financial goals.
In much the same way, the UC Irvine researchers hope to someday be able to look at cancer as an individual disease affecting different patients in different ways. They envision a day when scientists can take into account each patient’s details and then create a custom treatment.
If they can accomplish their goals, the benefits to cancer patients could be tremendous. The hunt for a cure would be no more as custom-tailored treatments stop cancer in its tracks without subjecting patients to toxic drugs and all their negative side effects. Here’s hoping this current line of research succeeds.