Just Discovered: The “Achilles Heel”
of Breast Cancer Stem Cells
Scientists at the UK’s Cardiff University just announced an important new finding on breast cancer stem cells:
“We can almost completely shut down their ability to spread the disease through the body through secondary tumors,” according to Richard Clarkson of the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University.
This is big. After all, breast cancer remains the most common cancer in American women (after skin cancer). The details follow. . .
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This new discovery highlights once again just how critical cancer stem cells are when it comes to the spread and recurrence of the disease. We’ve written in the past about graviola (Issue #116) and pawpaw (Issue #53). These natural remedies are powerful killers of cancer stem cells, also called multi-drug-resistant (MDR) cells and “cancer super cells.”
Cancer stem cells are extremely dangerous for a few reasons. They only make up a small portion of tumor cells, but they’re the ones responsible for the growth, spread, and relapse of the disease.
Other cancer cells may respond to various treatments, whether it’s drugs or an alternative approach, but cancer stem cells are notorious for being drug-resistant. They survive round after round of chemo. They’re the reason cancer often returns after the doctor tells a patient, “We got it all.”
Now it looks like conventional medicine may be on the heels of a treatment that’s effective against breast cancer stem cells. It’s too early to say whether it’s as good as graviola and pawpaw, which have the endearing quality of being cheap, and available right now. But let’s see. . .
Has Big Medicine found a way to
outsmart breast cancer stem cells?
It’s the breast cancer stem cells (also called bCSCs) that appear to spread cancer throughout the body. It’s these “distant metastases” that lead to the eventual death of too many breast cancer patients.
Besides being resistant to all conventional treatments, breast cancer stem cells aren’t all alike. This means conventional medicine has had no success at targeting all of them with one treatment.
Generally, a given chemo drug is most effective against cancer cells of a certain type, while failing to kill others. If there are five or ten or however many different types of breast cancer stem cell, they’re almost impossible to target with chemotherapeutic drugs.
On top of that, breast cancer stem cells carry a protein called cellular FLICE-Like Inhibitory Protein (c-FLIP), which is a known apoptosis inhibitor. In other words, c-FLIP stops natural cell death from taking place within breast cancer stem cells.
That’s why this new research, conducted by lead scientist Luke Piggott at Cardiff University, is so intriguing. It essentially presents a way to kill breast cancer stem cells without harming normal cells.
As far as conventional medicine is concerned, Piggott and his crew have brought us a great leap in progress. Their research opens the door to eliminating bCSCs from breast cancers regardless of how many different kinds there are and in spite of c-FLIP. I’m not a big fan of conventional medicine, but I truly hope this works out.
Effective treatment that works even the second time around
Piggott’s team reasoned that if c-FLIP could be suppressed — even partially — then breast cancer stem cells would be vulnerable to cell death. The researchers chose an anti-cancer agent known as Tumor Necrosis Factor-Related Apoptosis Inducing Ligand (TRAIL) as their weapon of choice.
TRAIL isn’t new to cancer treatment. The agent has shown a lot of promise in other clinical trials as a treatment for colorectal cancer, lung cancer, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Prior to this, TRAIL was never considered a treatment option for breast cancers because breast cancer cells, and especially breast cancer stem cells, have always shown such resistance to the drug. Until now, that is.
To suppress c-FLIP, the researchers used something called siRNA (FLIPi), which works on a genetic level.
The short story is that by suppressing c-FLIP with FLIPi, the door was left wide open for the anti-cancer agent TRAIL to move in and kill breast cancer stem cells. TRAIL was able to successfully halt self-renewal in these deadly cancer “seed cells.” In other words, those bCSCs were put on the fast-track to death. At the same time, normal cells were unharmed.
Initially the researchers saw that about 10%-30% of the breast cancer stem cells survived the treatment. But repeat treatments were effective and further reduced the overall number of breast cancer stem cells — the deadly seeds that resist most chemotherapeutic drugs and spread all over the body.
The success of repeat treatments means there’s hope for reducing the likelihood that breast cancer will return after the patient goes into remission.
Cautious hope for millions of women
This study is further evidence that we must figure out how to eliminate cancer stem cells in order to successfully treat all types of cancer. And so far, University of Cardiff’s process has only been proven on cells in the laboratory. Unfortunately, scientists probably won’t move forward on it until they have a lot more evidence that it’s effective.
Right now, they essentially have a laboratory method that switches off the resistance of breast cancer stem cells to certain drugs, and shows early promise that anti-cancer agents like TRAIL could be effective.
When they’re ready to start human testing, the first goal will be to decide how best to suppress c-FLIP in living breast cancer patients. After that, the next step is figuring out how to entirely eliminate cancer stem cells in the breast, meaning they’ll need to decide whether TRAIL is the ideal anti-cancer agent at that point.
So far, I’ve seen this — somewhat typical — reaction from researchers:
“These findings demonstrate potent cellular responses to TRAIL sensitization that have important clinical implications for the advent of new therapeutic strategies for breast cancer patients.”
But here’s the type of reaction you’ll find on message boards, written by women actually battling breast cancer:
“It is very exciting news. Now if they could just speed it through the trials and give it to all of us as a Christmas present I promise never to be bad again. Thank you so much for sharing this promising info. It’s why I come on the boards. To find and share hope.”
At the very least, this news offers hope to millions of women. Meanwhile, consider graviola and pawpaw as natural ways to get rid of breast cancer stem cells.