Cancer Stem cells

Stem cell diagram illustrates a human fetus st...

Image via Wikipedia

So, someone asked me the other day to explain cancer stem cells to him and I realized this is something I have never written about.  It happens to be a relatively new concept but an important one so I will quickly talk about what they are,

All cells in the body came from originally a very small set of cells at one time.  All of our blood cells for example came from one set of cells called the blood stem cells at one point (the technical name is hematopoietic stem cell).  We call the different kind of stem cells that give rise to different kinds of general cell types as lineage derived stem cells.   Fat tissue, cells that line the intestine, nerve cells, etc. all come from different stem cells at the beginning.

So, one property of stem cells that is that they can give rise to a whole series of like cells (e.g nervous tissue cells or fat tissue cells).  In order for this to happen the original stem cells must be able to do this without dying and without itself changing.  This is NOT a property of most cells….most cells die after some rounds of division and they change as they mature.  Stem cells do not share this property and can in fact multiply for ever potentially.

So, most cancer cells develop from very specific tissues like the cells of the eye, or cells from the nervous tissue and so on and so forth.  In some cases and in some cancers, scientists have found that cancers develop from the stem cells themselves….either very early stem cells (very rare) or mare differentiated stem cells (more common).

Either way, there is a big difference between a cancer from a non stem cell to that of a cancer from a stem cells.  Or, if a single cancer has both stem cells and non stem cells this also poses a unique problem.  To make a long story short, cancer stem cells are very difficult to treat.  They are usually very resistant to treatment and don’t respond well to things like chemotherapy, etc.  Also, when you kill off cancer cells and the cancer seems to go away, if the cancer remains in the cancer stem cells, then they can divide and create more cancer cells.  So, even if you think you have gotten rid of the cancer, it is still there but in small amounts as a stem cell.  We do not know how frequent this is but it has been seen in breast cancer and in a few other cancers.  It is still a bit controversial so we do not know anything yet about true clinical experience with these.

Thanks and let me know if you want more information on this as I only just scratched the surface.

Dr. C please visit Cancer Made Simple!@


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