Of mice and breasts

It’s difficult not to catch the contagious excitement in Dr. Leo Behie’s face and gestures as he explains the revolution in cancer research and the part the University of Calgary is playing in it.

Behie is a member of a U of C research team who have discovered a way to replicate cancer stem cells, which could lead to improvements in breast cancer treatment.

Until recently, scientists thought cancer was caused by cells within the tumour all replicating uncontrollably, and treatments such as chemotherapy were developed to kill off as many tumour cells as possible. Despite these treatments the breast cancer death rate remains the same, killing more than 5,000 Canadian women every year.

Recent research challenges the traditional understanding of cancer, pointing to the existence of cancer stem cells in the tumour, whose self-replicating behaviour might be responsible for the spread of cancer. These stem cells act like seeds, growing new tumours even when other cells have been killed. They are also rare, comprising less than 0.01 per cent of the tumour mass.

U of C researchers Behie, Dr. Arindom Sen, and PhD candidate Benjamin Youn have developed a way to produce a virtually inexhaustible supply of these rare breast cancer stem cells, giving researchers ample cells to study.

Previously, breast cancer stem cells were grown in simple laboratory flasks, but the U of C team can produce hundreds in a single bioreactor run.

Bioreactors are large fermentation chambers, providing closely controlled environments where cells can be reproduced. This method has been proven with breast cancer stem cells from mice, who share 95 per cent of their genome with humans.

Behie, director of the pharmaceutical production research facility, said the same methods will further research on human breast cancer stem cells and brain cancer stem cells.

“The cancer stem cell research is definitely not over-hyped,” said Behie, adding he doesn’t know how long it will take to change therapeutic interventions.

Youn said ideally, the research will allow a patient to pop a pill, treating the cancer much like a common cold, and killing off the cancer stem cells responsible for the growth of tumours without the harsh side effects of traditional therapies.

“The ability to investigate breast cancer stem cells opens up new areas of research that have not been as exhaustively studied,” said Youn. “This promises new and more effective treatment strategies.”

Details of the research will be published in the June 2 issue of Biotechnology Progress.

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