Cancer Stem Cells

The discovery of Cancer Stem Cells in some tumor types has ushered in a new era of cancer research.

Over the past 30 years, researchers have discovered that certain cancer cells behave like stem cells, those cells in the body that can replicate themselves to replenish damaged or aged cells and regenerate tissue. Cancerous stem cells (CSC) have been found which have the capacity to self-renew and differentiate into different types of cells. Many now believe this small population of stem-like, tumor-initiating CSCs is responsible for the reproduction and growth of cells within a cancer, and that they may be the key to preventing and curing the disease.

In this blood sample from a leukemia patient, a few cancer stem cells live among the rest of the cancerous cells. Without cancer stem cells, it is believed, cancer could not sustain its attack on the human body. In fact, some researchers believe that normal stem cells are the only cells that are around long enough to undergo all the changes to their DNA that are needed in order to become cancerous. 

Many treatments have been developed to kill cancer cells, but if they don’t get the cancer stem cells, the disease can relapse after an initial period of remission. 

Aggressive cancers that spread rapidly and resist chemotherapy or radiation even at an early stage may contain a greater proportion of CSCs. Studies have shown that some CSCs are resistant to radiation; they survive in greater numbers and can repair their damaged DNA and begin the process of self-renewal. Cancerous stem cells that lurk within the cancer are often not targeted by cancer therapies, which may be the reason that tumors sometimes reform or even spread to other organs years after a patient is declared cancer-free.

But how do you know whether a cancer treatment like chemo or radiation will be effective in killing any cancer cells, let alone cancer stem cells? How does a doctor decide which one to use?

Right now, most cancer treatments are tested in the patient’s body. After a course of treatment, doctors determine what effect it has had on the size of a tumor, or in the case of leukemia, the number of cancer cells in the patient’s blood.

It would be safer and more effective to screen cancer treatments in the lab before you administer them to a patient. The problem is that cells don’t live long outside of the human body.

The cells in a blood sample start dying right away. Leukemia and other cancer stem cells cultured in the lab lose their stem cell qualities. They don’t proliferate. If the cells are dying already, it’s really easy to kill them with chemicals or radiation.

So screening cancer treatments in the lab does not always yield accurate results. You need to recreate the environment that the cells live in, the “extracellular matrix” that contains everything cancer stem cells need to renew themselves and differentiate into multiple cell types.

The Sanatela Matrix

The Sanatela Matrix is bioengineered to imitate a microenvironment in bone marrow where normal blood stem cells make new white blood cells. It is also where leukemia stem cells live and replicate.

When Sanatela researchers place a 6mm “disk-like” segment of the Matrix into a cell dish in the laboratory and then introduce a patient’s cancerous blood, the cancer stem cells in the sample are immediately drawn into it. These cells rapidly attach themselves, become embedded into the Matrix and immediately begin to replicate and form colonies of cells. 

Once the leukemia cancer cells, or potentially other CSCs are thriving in the Matrix, researchers can safely test a range of cancer treatments in vitro. In a typical case of leukemia cancer, 24 different combinations and dosages are currently tested in the lab at one time. The results are then analyzed to quickly and accurately identify the precise treatments that are most successful in killing the CSCs.

“As an oncologist who makes treatment decisions every day, the ability to test all the therapies and options and create a treatment plan in the lab – before I administer them to my patient – will be a major improvement,” says Matrix co-inventor Dr. Omar Aljitawi.


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