Stem Cell Drug May Halt Cancer Spread

Trials for the drug, which could block harmful cells from spreading, may begin as early as April

By Bruce Hensel and Matthew Glasser
|  Wednesday, Jan 15, 2014  |  Updated 8:38 PM PDT
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Could stem cells be the key to treating certain kinds of cancer? Scientists at UCLA believe they have unlocked the mystery of how some cancer cells spread and are about to test a new drug that could cure the disease in certain cases. Dr. Bruce got an exclusive look inside their lab and their discovery on the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.

Dr. Bruce Hensel

Could stem cells be the key to treating certain kinds of cancer? Scientists at UCLA believe they have unlocked the mystery of how some cancer cells spread and are about to test a new drug that could cure the disease in certain cases. Dr. Bruce got an exclusive look inside their lab and their discovery on the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.

Southern California scientists may have found a potential cancer breakthrough thanks to new stem cell research at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Stem cells -- usually studied for their disease-curing potential by stimulating growth or replacing diseased cells -- are being examined in a different way by researchers. This time, scientists are looking at how they can block bad stem cells that may lead to fatal cancers.

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At UCLA’s special stem cell laboratory in West Los Angeles, scientists have received a grant to see if different types of stem cells can be blocked so that a cancer may be controlled, or even cured.

The cells are called "stem cells" because they are the most immature cells that are taken from a baby’s umbilical cord, from bone marrow, or even from an embryo.

"Within cancers, there are stem cells that promote the growth of additional cancer cells," said Dr. Zeb Wainberg, of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (JCCC).

That discovery led to research on a unique, cancer-fighting drug that worked on the cancerous stem cells.

"The drug actually blocks the enzyme activity of an enzyme that’s critical in cell division," said Dr. Dennis Slamon of UCLA’s JCCC.

In the lab and in tests on animals, the resulting tumors were contained and prevented from spreading.

Scientists believe the next step is to start trials in humans to see if the drugs work the same way as they did in the lab, and to see what the effect is on cancer in humans.

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Slamon and Wainberg may be able to start those trials as early as this April, thanks to a grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state stem cell agency.

"We will be testing that drug in humans for the first time," Wainberg said. "This treatment will be used for patients that we believe have colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and possibly some forms of brain center."

"The way you’ll know if the treatment has worked is you will see responses in the tumor - that is, shrinkage of the tumor - and control of growth over time so that you don’t see progression of the tumor," Wainberg said.

The hope is that the trial will lead to a cure for some patients and control of cancer for others, with fewer side effects than conventional treatments.

The study will also help determine which cancers and which patients the treatment would best suit.

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