What are Cancer Stem Cells?

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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2019
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Cancer stem cells are the cells that reproduce to form the tumors characteristic of different types of cancer. These cells are similar to other types of human stem cells in that they have the capability of diversifying and creating a number of different types of adult cells. Many types of cancer research have centered around eliminating these cells, with the idea that if the replication of cancer cells is stopped, the disease will no longer spread throughout the body.

Different types of cancer come from cancer stem cells, and these cells are responsible for the formation of tumors and the multiplication of the cells within. In some cases, there has been a correlation between how quickly cancers spread and how many of the cells within the tumors are stem cells. The more cancer stem cells present, the more replication there is, and the faster the cancer spreads. The first type of cancer in which researchers were able to positively identify stem cells was in leukemia; since then, researchers have discovered which identifiable markers on each cell indicate a stem cell.


Research into treating different types of cancer by targeting stem cells has been conducted on a number of cancers, ranging from breast and prostate cancer to melanoma and adrenal cancers. Cancer treatment options such as radiation and chemotherapy are administered in an attempt to kill all cancer cells in the body, and frequently kill a number of healthy cells as well. The idea behind targeted therapies that kill only cancer stem cells is that once all the stem cells are dead, the reproduction of the cancer will be halted. Once the cancer cells present in the body die, they will not be replaced, and the cancer will be dead.

Cancer stem cells are not as vulnerable to chemotherapy and radiation treatments as other types of cancer cells. Researchers looking into treating cancer by focusing on stem cells have concentrated on finding alternate ways of attacking these growth cells. It has been a long and complicated process of growing cancers in mice in order to then try to treat it. Some researchers have relied on the development of cancer stem cell cultures taken from bowel cancers and reproduced in a laboratory setting.

The goal of cancer stem cell research is not just to find a treatment that would destroy cancer by eliminating the malignant stem cells, but to do so by not harming any of the normal, healthy cells in the body. This will not only make destroying cancer faster and more thorough, but will also eliminate many of the side effects of treatments such as chemotherapy. It will also help to keep cancers from spreading to different areas of the body, as stem cells are also responsible for specializing into various types of cancers.


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