Gaining ground to cancer: a realistic but hopeful view

Bilbao, Spain - April 12, 2016

As a researcher in the field of cancer, you never end learning about this changing and dark enemy. We are always looking forward to unraveling the complexity that underlies every component involved in the initiation, development and evolution of the tumor.

We know there is no “cure for cancer”, meaning unilateral cure. Scientists who live trying to defeat it can be compared to The Musketeers, “all for one and one for all”. All against the same enemy which is indeed a hard nut to crack. It is kind of funny and naive when someone asks you “have you already found the cure for cancer?”, obviously the “no” plain answer does not apply here because, although there are still many fronts open, there are plenty of progress achieved.

When I read this article by Sean Williams in The Motley Fool: “Beyond chemotherapy: 4 unique ways drug developers are fighting back against cancer”, it made me see again the global picture. It put in writing the dizzying and spooky reality, which is an old acquaintance but always makes shudder. (…) The World Health Organization predicts that annual global cancer incidence rates could jump by nearly 60% over the coming two decades to 22 million people. (…).It seems that despite the thousands of cancer research groups and biotech/pharma companies working from sunrise to sunset, and the millions invested in the search for new drugs, we are far from cuting hair to Sanson. But the comforting reality is that we are always moving forward.

People unrelated to science field usually take for granted that “the” cancer will be defeated someday. The fact here is that we are not talking about only one disease. The National Cancer Institute has an A to Z list of cancer types which include near to 200 types. There are also other aspects to consider:  the heterogeneity in the response to treatment, the metastatic capacity of the tumor, etc. All related to the patient genotype, which can always make this puzzle even more twisted.

As a company focused in the development of new drugs targeting cancer stem cells, StemTek Therapeutics keeps in mind each one of the faces that make this small population of the tumor seem like a many-headed monster: interaction with the tumor microenvironment (healthy cells that join the “dark side”), self-renewal, dormancy, metabolism…


In this post I want to put the accent in the self-renewal pathways of CSCs, which are very clearly explained in a review from A Borah et al. published last year in Oncogenesis journal.

The authors suggest that deregulations in the self-renewal pathways, like Hedgehog, Notch, Wnt and Bmi1, in that small population of the tumor, make them resistant to conventional chemo treatments, which results in tumor recurrence. Thus, a natural way of making CSCs sensible to usual anti cancer therapies seems to be pushing CSCs into differentiation processes. But again at this point there is one key fact to take into account, which is that normal and cancer stem cells share similarities in the signaling pathways. Therefore, it is of highly importance to selectively target the CSCs, so side effects linked to anti cancer treatment can be avoided. In order to achieve this cellular accuracy, there is the trendy nanotechnology, also exposed in the A Borah et al. review. It has several outstanding advantages such as improving drug solubility, reducing toxicity, protecting  drugs from degradation and it also allows targeting drugs to specific sites in the body.

For beginners like me in this topic of nanomedicine, you can surf the section of Nanotechnology of the web of the National Cancer Institute. “Nanotechnology relies on the intersection of expertise from many science (chemistry, biology, physics and materials) and engineering disciplines”, and this interdisciplinary facet is its main strength. Interestingly, a spanish research group from the University of Cantabria, led by Mónica L Fanarraga, recently published how the use of multiwalled carbon nanotubes stopped tumor progression. This is just a small, but of relevance, bite of the multi-flavoured pie that is the cancer research field.

All this being told, do not lose track of cancer stem cells and nanomedicine. Both still have very promising unexplored terrains.

Our workhorse as a company are tumor-initiating cells, the hardcore of the disease, but as researchers devoted to defeat cancer, we must not lose sight of the big picture.

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