View Full Version : U-M stem cell trial shows promise against breast cancer

10-01-2010, 10:22 AM
September 30. 2010

Scientists hopeful clinical research to be shown at World Stem Cell Summit will produce breast cancer treatment

Kim Kozlowski / The Detroit News

Detroit -- University of Michigan scientists have launched groundbreaking clinical trials that researchers hope will lead to a breakthrough in treatment for cancer with stem cells.
The trials are being conducted on women with advanced stage breast cancer and attempt to target the cancer's stem cells, which are believed to be resistant to traditional therapies and the fuel behind cancer's spread.

By using experimental drugs to block these cancer stem cells, doctors hope the tumors will shrink or at least stop spreading and will lead to better ways to treat -- and possibly cure -- the disease that is the nation's second-leading cause of death.
The research will be highlighted next week in Detroit during the World Stem Cell Summit, a gathering of 1,200 prominent stem cell scientists, industry leaders and advocates from 30 countries.
But the trial means much more to Mary Diesing, who for eight years has battled breast cancer that has spread to her bones, spine and liver.
"This is my last hope," said Diesing, 69, who's been traveling 500 miles from her home in Indian River, Mich., in recent weeks to participate in the trial. "My doctor told me either I do this or go into hospice."
The World Stem Cell Summit was first held in Texas five years ago as a response to outcry over research using embryonic stem cells -- derived from leftover embryos from a couple's fertility treatment. But the summit has evolved to include work on cord blood cells, regenerative medicine and adult stem cells, from which cancer stem cells originate. Among the speakers will be U-M Comprehensive Cancer Director Max Wicha, who launched the trials to block breast cancer stem cells that Diesing is enrolled in, and has since begun collaborating with other pioneering scientists to make Michigan a leader in the field.
"We rarely use the 'C word' -- cure -- but the intent of research today is not to study (cancer) but to treat and ultimately to beat it," said Jeffrey Trent, president and director of the Grand Rapids-based Van Andel Institute, which is planning to partner in the future with Wicha.
"There is so much hope that we're positioned today with the information from the (human) genome, with the biologic expertise and understanding of the stem cells, I think we can be at the vanguard of treatments that hopefully will lead toward not just longer, disease-free survival but quite literally cures. That's the hope of the cancer stem cell approach."
2003 discovery paved way
Wicha's trial launched in 2003 after work by Canadian scientist John Dick, who discovered stem cells in some human leukemias that were the malignant cells driving cancer in the blood.
Wicha, along with U-M stem cell researchers Sean Morrison and Michael Clarke, now at Stanford University, wondered if all cells were the same in more common, solid tumors. They put cells that acted like stem cells and those that didn't into mice and found that only the cells that acted like stem cells created tumors. The research resulted in the first discovery of stem cells in breast cancer in 2003.
Since then, Wicha said, further studies have revealed more about cancer stem cells, including that they are highly resistant to traditional cancer treatments and also responsible for the spread of tumors and death.
"In breast cancer, we have very good results of getting rid of the primary cancer with surgery or radiation therapy but what is lethal to a number of women who actually die of breast cancer is the spread of the cancer," Wicha said.
"These cancer stem cells are the cells that are metastatic. That's why we had to develop new approaches to target these cancer stem cells if we are going to cure more women with breast cancer and other types of cancer."
'The wrong neighborhood'
Dr. Eva Feldman, the chief investigator of an FDA-approved clinical trial that is using stem cells in patients with Lou Gehrig's disease, an incurable neurodegenerative disease, has excited many advocates about better therapies in the future. She thinks Wicha's work could lead to one of the world's highest honors.
"I think someday he will win the Nobel Peace Prize," Feldman said. "His work has ... really revolutionized the field of cancer."
But some cancer researchers are skeptical and don't believe cells are different in solid tumors.
"The idea of (cancer) stem cells is ... a neighborhood's not bad but there are a few hoodlums," said Dr. Scott Kern, a cancer geneticist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and U-M graduate.
"When I think of cancer, I think it's bad. I don't think most of it can be excused as just being in the wrong neighborhood. For most of the tumors, I really think that the vast majority of cells are intrinsically bad."
Patient sees improvement
Despite the skepticism, Wicha's trial has been helpful to Tammy Margeson, 29, of Lansing, diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2005.
Over the years, she has tried many traditional treatments but her cancer kept advancing, and it's now in her bones. She has been part of Wicha's trial, which is being run with scientists at Baylor University in Texas and Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Massachusetts.
Since her enrollment in January 2009, Margeson said she has seen very little, if any, progression of her cancer. It's also been the treatment that has worked the longest.
"Now that I have gotten used to it, I am living a fairly normal life," said Margeson.
"In the past, I didn't have a lot of energy. If my husband and I would go out for an evening, it might take me two or three days to recover. Now I've been stable long enough, I am planning for the future."
Wicha has launched two other clinical trials targeting cancer stem cells, including one in collaboration with Karmanos Cancer Institute's Dr. Patricia LoRusso, regarded as a lead researcher in early phase one clinical cancer trials. Along with the cancer and genomics expertise from Trent and the Van Andel Institute, Wicha hopes to make Michigan a leader in cancer stem cell research and treatments.
"(Our) dream is to set up a network across the state to not only bring the science together but also to extend the clinical trials," said LoRusso, director of Karmanos' Center for Experimental Therapeutics.
"There are many patients who cannot afford the money, the time and the energy that it takes three, four hours just to come here. If we could make it accessible to them, we could potentially improve cancer therapy and make a difference faster."
U-M scientists also have discovered stem cells in cancer of the pancreas, head and neck. Other clinic trials are about to launch and the university is among the few nationally that is committed to this type of research.
"Ultimately we are going to have to prove that knocking down the cancer stem cells and eventually eliminating them helps patients do better," Wicha said.
"If we do prove that, you'll see a whole series of cancer stem cell-targeted therapies and I hope that will result in much better outcomes for patients with advanced cancers."
kkozlowski@detnews.com (313) 222-2024

From The Detroit News: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100930/METRO/9300421/U-M-stem-cell-trial-promising#ixzz117nmLGCW