Studies completed in 2008 suggested for the first time that cancer tumors might contain cancer stem cells. Stem cells are basic cell structures that have the ability to grow into a diverse variety of cell types. As such, cancer stem cells are the initial cancer cells that grow and divide to proliferate the illness.
Today, a wide variety of cancer drugs and treatments are effective at killing a high number of cancer cells. However, the ability of cancer stem cells to survive these treatments and start the growth process all over again often prevents them from offering long-term health benefits.
With the discovery of cancer stem cells, interest has quickly grown in favor of the idea for developing drugs that specifically target these unique cell structures.
Robert A. Weinberg of MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research is one of the emerging experts on the subject (it was his 2008 research that led to the discovery of tumor cells that may indeed harbor stem cells). Weinberg has worked closely with Piyush Gupta, a researcher that has done extensive research into how current drug treatments affect cancer stem cells.
As it turns out, there are currently very few conventional cancer drugs that measurably affect the health and function of cancer stem cells. With this fact in mind, Gupta set to work screening 16,000 unique compounds in the hopes of finding specific drugs that might effectively target stem cells.
Through Gupta’s research, it was found that an antibacterial known as Salinomycin proved to attack a large proportion of breast cancer stem cells. Now, a startup known as Verastem intends to research how Salinomycin may be used to create the first cancer treatment that specifically targets cancer stem cells.
Verastem also plans to screen an additional 300,000 compounds in an effort to find additional options that may target cancer stem cells.
Another startup that is focusing on cancer stem cell research is OncoMed. Based in Redwood City, CA, OncoMed researchers are looking to find ways to reduce the ability of cancer stem cells to self-renew. OncoMed currently has entered stage 1 clinical trials with its inaugural drug (OMP-21M18).