No two cancers are the same. Each individual cancer possesses different biological characteristics, even cancers of the same type. These differences, which can be great or very subtle, are caused by the many distinct populations of cancer cells that can reside within a single tumour.
The term given to this phenomenon is “tumour heterogeneity” and it is one of the major reasons why some cancer treatments fail or eventually lose their initial beneficial effect. This is particularly the case for the new anti-cancer agents, which have been designed against the defects present in all cancer cells. No two people are the same and nor are their cancers.
Symposium Tackles the Issue of Tumour Heterogeneity
Last week the European Cancer Stem Cell Institute, situated in the Haydn Ellis Building at Cardiff University, hosted a two-day research symposium bringing together some of the best minds in the field to share their latest advancements, and identify the priority areas for future research. The symposium sought to investigate the intricate link that appears to exist between cancer stem cells and the development of tumour heterogeneity. Cancer stem cells are a rare but significant population of cells that most if not all cancers harbour and are thought to drive treatment resistance and relapse. The list of world-class speakers included Professor Michael Clarke from Stanford University, USA, who was one of the pioneers of cancer stem cell theory and who published some of the seminal papers in the field over a decade ago.
Many different cancer types were covered over the course of the two days including cancers of the bowel, blood, brain, pancreas and breast. This clearly illustrates the intrinsic and universal nature of cancer stem cells and tumor heterogeneity and the great hindrance these are to lasting effective treatment. It soon became clear that the targeting of tumour heterogeneity through novel anti-cancer stem cell agents in combination with existing treatments holds great promise, and is one which will ultimately improve survival for cancer patients everywhere.
It was a testimony to the event organizers that students and other up and coming scientists such as Huw Morgan, a first-year PhD student pictured right, had the opportunity to share their work alongside some of the big names.
Developing Laboratory-Based Clinical Trials
It was also great to see Luned Badder, a Cancer Research Wales-sponsored scientist win best science poster at the conference. Luned’s pioneering work focuses on the development and growth in the laboratory of mini bowel cancers that have been taken from consenting patients who have undergone surgery as part of their treatment. These are going to be a very effective laboratory-based tool for the study of cancer stem cells and the discovery of new therapies that can limit the development of tumour heterogeneity.
These tumour-like structures are known as organoids, First, they are genetically analysed for the various molecular defects that cause cancer growth, and then they are maintained in the laboratory, much like a mini-hospital. These organoids, which more closely resemble the original patient tumour, are treated with the very latest cancer drugs. During the course of her studies, Luned has already been able to demonstrate different treatment responses between organoids established from separate patients.
This world-leading research is already helping clinicians here in Wales get a better understanding of why some patients respond better than others to these new anti-cancer agents within the clinic. Luned is busy unravelling why these differences occur so that in future clinicians can make more informed treatment decisions to better target all bowel cancers more effectively.
Extending Pioneering Research to Lung Cancer
Such has been the success of this project that the work has now been extended to lung cancer, a cancer which kills more people in Wales than any other cancer, but encouragingly a cancer for which a number of new targeted therapies is emerging.
Achieving a better understanding of how these new drugs work in lung cancer and for that matter conventional treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy will ultimately improve the poor survival rates for those affected by this disease in Wales. Pictured is Dr Andrew Hollins, who has been instrumental in setting up the lung cancer organoid culture system in Cardiff and who has worked closely with Luned over the last two years to form a formidable team.
Cancer Research Wales would like to thank the organisers of the conference for putting together such a fascinating two days of science and also the people of Wales for helping us to support such pioneering work, the first of its kind in Wales.