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Dr. Kevin Dalby, UT Austin Professor, Examines How Stem Cells Cause and Cure Cancer

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Scientists around the world dedicate their lives to the discovery of cancer treatments. They have found that gene mutations within the cells lead to abnormal cell growth, causing cancer. However, more research needs to be done to determine what triggers the genetic mutations in the cells. Here, UT-Austin Professor Kevin Dalby discusses the recent research answering the question: can stem cells cause and cure cancer?

Fibroblast growth factor (FGF) is a common growth factor used to expand stem cells. Researchers have found that FGF is beneficial for culturing cancer stem cells acquired from brain and breast tumor tissues. Studies show that FGF appears to play a significant role in prostate cancer too.

Research indicates that problems or errors in the way FGF is transmitted and received can activate previously dormant stem cells, which is believed to cause cancer. This discovery has important implications for future cancer therapies.

Most cells in the body express the FGF protein, but there are many different types, making it challenging for researchers to understand their cell communication role.

Studies show that even within the same tumor, not all cancer cells are the same. Often cancerous stem cells are found within a tumor, and many researchers believe understanding these stem cells will be vital in preventing the initiation and relapse of cancer.

FGF miscommunication between cells has been described as being similar to a game of “telephone.” The miscommunication activates previously dormant stem cells in one organ, which then miscommunicates with other cells in the same system. This, in turn, enables the cancerous stem cells to reproduce and spread, impacting other systems in the body.

Researchers believe that cancerous stem cells may initiate the reproduction and growth of dormant cells within cancer. The cancerous stem cells that are dormant within the tumor may explain the relapse of tumors after the surgical removal of the primary tumor or other cancer treatments.

In some cases, years after the patient is declared cancer-free, breast or prostate cancer can return to other organs. This is an indication that cancer had metastasized before it was initially detected. The cause of this may be the existence of cancerous stem cells.

The goal of understanding stem cells and the FGF family of cell signaling proteins is to try and discover ways to prevent cancer rather than just treat it after it occurs. The expectation is that someday these new technologies will eliminate the need for chemotherapy and radiation therapy and their adverse effects.

Chemotherapy uses particular drugs to shrink or kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy kills these cells with high-energy beams such as X-rays or protons. Both chemo and radiation can damage healthy cells along with killing cancer cells. Unpleasant side effects often accompany these treatments.

In summary, researchers believe that if they can manage how cancerous stem cells continue dormant and how they are stimulated, they can prevent cancer. It is all about how stem cells talk to each other. It is still early, but these findings are expected to facilitate significant advances in the battle against cancer.

About Kevin Dalby

Dr. Kevin Dalby is a UT-Austin medicinal chemistry professor. He is researching the mechanisms of cancer cell signaling to develop targeted therapeutics. Dr. Dalby’s efforts were recognized by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and the National Institutes of Health, granting him nearly $5 million to support his research.