A study focusing on attacking cancer stem cells, which is what has been known to cause relapse and spread of the disease, is set to start this April at the National Cancer Center Hospital East in Chiba Prefecture. This should be a first in Japan. The main thrust is to eventually create therapy that would kill off cancer that could not be surgically removed.
Cancer stem cells are what generate cancer cells, and are therefore present in many types of the disease. While cancer cells can be dealt with using drugs and radiation, cancer stem cells are not exactly the same. These cells are largely unaffected by the usual treatments and therapies because they are dormant, meaning they barely divide—they are inactive. They also have this defense mechanism against reactive oxygen species and other agents that are produced by anticancer drugs and radiation therapy. This is why they survive even when cancer cells have already died, and because they are merely “sleeping” in a patient’s body, they have a tendency to relapse or cause the spreading of the disease.
The clinical study will utilize the discovery made by a team of researchers from the NCC Hospital East and Tokyo’s Keio University, where a substance can actually inhibit the functions of CD44v, a protein on the surface of stomach cancer stem cells. A select number of terminal stomach cancer patients will be given sulfasalazine four times a day for at least two weeks and see if the drug is safe and effective. Director of the Research Center for Innovative Oncology at the NCC Hospital East, Atsushi Ohtsu, said, “A therapy that attacks the very root of cancer could turn out to be more effective than conventional therapies.”