When it comes to understanding cancer relapse, what is the significance of a cancer stem cell? According to a recent article by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, maybe everything.
If the ability of a cancer to relapse is tied to a subpopulation of the cancer's cells called the cancer stem cells that are resistant to most standard therapies, it might explain why such therapies can reliably put some types of cancers into remission but be unable to prevent relapse. Mukherjee likens chemotherapy to "hacking at its weeds while leaving the roots behind."
In the past decade, much research has focused on finding and characterizing cancer stem cells in a wide variety of cancers. "The paradox...was not lost on researchers. For decades, cancer had been imagined as a degenerative disease...often a side-effect of aging. Yet in the search for a new generation of anticancer drugs, it was to the science of regeneration -- to embryos and stem cells -- that the field turned."
Another interesting finding: Different cancers appear to have different percentages of stem cells, and these stem cells have different abilities to regenerate (and, supposedly, different abilities to lead to relapse).
"Universal cures and theories of cancer have so often failed that we may as well spend time talking about specific theories for specific forms of cancer. And it's in specific cancers that the stem-cell theory might still apply -- and powerfully so."
While looking for "a cure for cancer," researchers are also looking for specific cures for specific types of cancer.