From Our Archives: Advocacy
September 14, 2011
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What Caused Your Cancer?
September 14, 2011 – Staff Reports
Açaí Berry’s Effect on Cancer in Question
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Remaining Faithful
September 14, 2011 – Cheryl L. Rice
Pipeline
September 14, 2011 – Lindsay Ray
Supplement Research in Cancer Lacking
September 14, 2011 – Barrie Cassileth, PhD
Managing Cancer-Related Diarrhea
September 14, 2011 – Katy Human
Comments from Readers
September 14, 2011
The Meaning of Stem Cells
September 14, 2011 – Debu Tripathy, MD
San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium
September 14, 2011 – Lindsay Ray
Q & A: Patients Want Coordinated Care
September 14, 2011 – Len Lichtenfeld, MD
A Survivorship Resource Map
September 14, 2011 – Elizabeth Whittington
Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between
September 14, 2011 – Kathy LaTour
Breast Cancer Drug Scores Win in Prevention
September 14, 2011 – Elizabeth Whittington
Ford Led Discussion on Breast Cancer
September 14, 2011 – Lindsay Ray
Another State Gets Chemo Parity
September 14, 2011 – Taylor Walker
How to Manage Family Dynamics During Cancer
September 14, 2011 – Jane Hill
Coordinating Care After Cancer
September 14, 2011 – Dawn Dorsey
Do You Need a Cancer Coach?
September 14, 2011 – Jennifer M. Gangloff
Choosing an Imaging Test
September 14, 2011 – Charlotte Huff
Advocates Make Cancer Their Mission
September 14, 2011 – Marc Silver
Unlocking the Mystery of Cancer Stem Cells
September 14, 2011 – Elaine Schattner, MD
Supplements During Cancer: Help or Hype?
September 14, 2011 – Laura Beil
From Our Archives: Advocacy
September 14, 2011
Cancer Imaging Gets Sophisticated
September 14, 2011 – Susan R. Peck, PhD
Sleep Problems Impair Childhood Cancer Survivors
September 14, 2011 – Taylor Walker
Vitamin D and Folate May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk
September 14, 2011 – Lena Huang
From Our Archives: Supplements
September 14, 2011
From Our Archives: Imaging
September 16, 2011
Flaxseed Doesn't Help With Hot Flashes
September 14, 2011 – Kathy LaTour
Safety in Numbers
September 14, 2011 – Jane Hill
Previvors Need Expert Guidance, Close Surveillance
September 14, 2011 – Dawn Dorsey
Should You “Just Do It?”
September 14, 2011 – Marc Silver
Checking Out a Charity
September 14, 2011 – Marc Silver
Understanding Clinical Trials
September 14, 2011
Don’t Believe Everything You Read on Supplement Labels
September 14, 2011 – Laura Beil
Tell What You’re Taking
September 14, 2011 – Laura Beil
Searching for a Cancer Coach?
September 14, 2011 – Jennifer M. Gangloff
What Caused Your Cancer?
September 14, 2011 – Staff Reports
Açaí Berry’s Effect on Cancer in Question
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Remaining Faithful
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September 14, 2011 – Lindsay Ray
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The Meaning of Stem Cells

The term “stem cells” has taken on a scientific, political and conversational context over the past few years for many reasons.

BY Debu Tripathy, MD
PUBLISHED September 14, 2011

The term “stem cells” has taken on a scientific, political and conversational context over the past few years for many reasons. Scientifically, they are the origin of all cells, particularly for multicellular organisms.

There is evidence that cancer stem cells can evade conventional cancer treatment and lay dormant for long periods of time, eventually leading to cancer recurrence or progression.

While we have known for centuries that the sperm and egg are the origin of humans, the intricate details of how one cell gives rise to a whole body in a deliberate and coordinated fashion have only recently come into focus. Pluripotency is the term used for one cell being able to become any mature cell, and the most obvious situation is the sperm or egg forming an initial set of cells that becomes an embryo and then further differentiates into a fully functional newborn. 

The identification of protein markers on pluri-potent stem cells, and the ability to grow these cells in the laboratory, led to a rapid proliferation of projects attempting to develop organs and tissue, and to simply further understand the biology of stem cells and the differentiation pathways that lead to specific human cell types. However, those early efforts required the use of embryos, including those obtained from abortions, which led to the politicizing of science and banning of such research that tapped federal funds. The ban was eventually lifted, but by then, stem cells were being engineered from non-embryonic cells by using specific factors or transfection of certain genes.

Once proteins and other characteristics that define stem cells were better established, different tissues were found to have their own set of stem cells—for example, bone marrow “hematopoietic stem cells,” which can give rise to all types of mature blood cells. More surprising was the discovery that cancer cells also contain a small subpopulation of stem-like cells.

In this issue, you will read more about how this information has created an explosive new field in cancer research, just as it has in regenerative medicine. The number of publications and funded grants with the word “stem cell” has skyrocketed over the past 10 years. My own institution has a Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research funded by the state of California, and a host of projects, including cancer clinical trials, so I have to declare a “conflict” of sorts in writing this editorial. 

There is evidence that cancer stem cells can evade conventional cancer treatment and lay dormant for long periods of time, eventually leading to cancer recurrence or progression. But stem cells could also be cancer’s Achilles’ heel. We must therefore understand the biological mechanisms involved in stem cell growth and maintenance. Some of the stem cell pathways appear to have possible points of attack by specific molecules and antibodies, which are mostly in very early phases of clinical study. While many scientists and clinicians are enamored with the elegance and logic of this approach, others are skeptical and do not believe there is sufficient proof that cancer stem cells even exist.

Nevertheless, the field of cancer stem cells is currently inspiring hope and more opportunities to make a big impact in cancer. It is too soon to tell if the whole field will go by the wayside after unsuccessful clinical trials or whether serious traction will develop. Most studies are just starting, but a few promising results are being seen, as you will read in this issue. Sexy and new does not always translate into results. But the field is attracting significant funding and bright scientists—so for now, it is riding high. We will follow this story over time and track its path in history.

Debu Tripathy, MD
Editor-in-Chief
Professor of Medicine, University of Southern California
Co-Leader, Women's Cancer Program at the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center

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