Thursday, 15 September 2011

Breast cancer "breakthrough" at Cardiff University

First things first, this isn't a "cure". Science doesn't work like that. This is one step out of hundreds but it's a significant one.

One of the major theories regarding the origins of cancer is that it is metastasised (spread throughout the body) by stem cells - cells with unlimited potential at cell division, a mutated form of which is cancer itself.

The Tenovus research team at Cardiff University, led by Dr Richard Clarkson and including PhD student Luke Piggott (in the video above), have potentially discovered a way to "switch off" the drug resistance in these stem cells, marking them for destruction by a new drug (TRAIL-receptor antagonists). If developed into an effective therapy, it could limit the spreading potential of aggressive forms of breast cancer, making it a chronic condition that a person can be treated for instead of something much worse.

Different cancer stem cells are associated with different types of cancer - so for the moment this research is limited to breast cancer. However, there's no reason that other aggressively spreading cancers couldn't be targeted for similar treatments in the future - like cancers of the brain, skin, pancreas, prostate and bowel.

One of the "holy grails" in medicine at the moment are the use of stem cells to repair or replace damaged organs or tissues. One of the issues, and one of the reasons that is hasn't been fully developed or commonplace as a treatment yet, is that it's hard to "turn off" stem cells or get them to differentiate (change) into the specific parts needed. A way to do this might be another future spin off from this breakthrough.

This is how scientific research works, and what often riles me about tabloid headlines of "useless" research projects "wasting money" as well as ramping up the latest breakthroughs as magical cures for all. Big discoveries - like a cure for cancer - are a massive jigsaw puzzle instead of a simple A-B-C process. Research projects that might seem completely unrelated are just pieces in that jigsaw.

As a graduate of the Cardiff School of Biosciences, I'm immensely proud that they continue to carry out World-class research like this close to home. There are also dedicated scientists working on treatments for arthritis/connective tissue diseases, Huntington's disease, neurological disorders, dental diseases and more famously, the common cold.

Of course they wouldn't be able to without funding. Tenovus have a donation site here.