A New Approach To Cancer: This Radical Biotech Company Thinks The Cure Lies In Stem Cells

Breast cancer cell Credit: National Cancer Institute

New biotech company Stemcentrx is one of the most highly valued start ups of all time, with investors including Elon Musk and Paypal's founder Peter Thiel. Why? Stemcentrx is banking on a radical idea that rare, but highly potent 'cancer stem cells' cause cancer, and not everyday cells that go rogue.

The company has already conducted their 1st clinical trial on a drug that targets particular stem cells, which they believe cause small cell lung cancer. Results look promising so far. 

Stem cells can be bad?

A canadian team has demonstrated that one form of leukemia is triggered by these 'cancer stem cells', and a paper in 2003 argued breast cancer can also be triggered by these unique cells. If multiple cancers really are caused by these potent, malign stem cells, it explains why chemotherapy is often ineffective. If these tumours are formed from rare and specific cells, then if any survived they would simply form again. Stemcentrx believes that cancer operates like an ordinary organ - the bulk growing from a small niche of stem cells. 

A lymph node being replaced by metastatic melanoma. 

Killing these cells is like ripping out the roots of a weed 

The company is testing their theory by sourcing different human tumours, and growing them in mice with a compromised immune system. They then take a tiny slice of each tumour and implant it in another mouse. If the tumour continues to grow, then it contains one of these nasty stem cells. The scientists then set about trying to find any markers on these cells that they can target with drugs. 

Do stem cells really cause cancer?

This is being intensely debated but we don't have definitive proof yet. There's convincing evidence that some forms of cancer arise in this manner, but not every kind. Opposing research recently showed that a quarter of melanoma cells can continue to cause cancer in another host, making it unlikely a few unique stem cells are to blame. 

“The ultimate proof is when, by targeting only the stem cells, you eradicate the cancer”

The only way to know for sure it to test the hypothesis, so that's what the company is trying to do. Whether this theory proves widely applicable is uncertain, but an successful drugs could pack a powerful punch against certain types of cancers.

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