Today is World Cancer Day. As groups around the globe seek to increase awareness of cancer and to encourage its prevention, detection, and treatment, it seemed like a good time to discuss some of the flurry of work being done to try to reign in cancer stem cells. Most experts in the field consider those cells to be a major culprit in our inability to fully wipe out many cancers. (You can learn more about cancer stem cells on our web site.)
Investor news web sites frequently tout companies working on drugs and antibody proteins that target cancer stem cells. It is a bit hard to tell how many companies are working on thwarting these devilish cells, but it is clearly more than a dozen. Three companies in the field were bought by large pharmaceutical firms last year for more than $1 billion each. And the first public stock offering in the Biotech sector this year was last week’s offering for the cancer stem cell company Stemline Therapeutics.
At CIRM about six percent of our grants fund work that seeks to understand or block the destructive action of cancer stem cells. That represents more than $100 million in funding. Clearly, targeting cancer stem cells is a hot field.
Three of our Disease Team projects are working on potential therapies that target cancer stem cells, two in blood cancers and one in solid tumors. One of those teams, led by Irving Weissman at Stanford (and described here), is developing an antibody protein that disables a receptor on the surface of cancer stem cells. That receptor blocks the action of a type of immune cell that normally seeks out and destroys cancer. Weissman has dubbed the gene mutation for that receptor the “Don’t Eat Me Gene.” In animal studies it has proven very promising. We have written about that work a few times here
With cancer still ranking as the number 2 killer of Americans, any progress in this field offers hope to millions of people.