Discovery could lead to new cancer drugs

Team discovers how to prevent "immortality" of cancer stem cells

Raquel Maurier - 21 November 2013

Medical researchers at the University of Alberta have made a key discovery that could lead to improved cancer drugs.

Michael Hendzel and his team published their findings earlier this year in the peer-reviewed journal, Journal of Biological Chemistry. They discovered a chemical that inhibits the body from trying to repair cancer cells damaged from radiation or therapy.

Patients with cancer are commonly thought to relapse because their "immortal" cancer stem cells survive the effects of treatment.

"It's known that cancer stem cells are more resistant to at least some types of therapies," said Hendzel.

"The chemical we discovered eliminated the survival advantage these cells have, so the implication is that these cancer stem cells could be more sensitive to treatment and therapy. This discovery means we could find a way to prevent failure of cancer treatment due to these immortal stem cells."

Hendzel explained the chemical was effective at inhibiting DNA repair in response to radiation treatment. When cancer cells are repaired, they can survive, escape and spread. Because the drug targets an important process that controls the growth potential of the cell, it may also have applications in cancer therapy beyond inhibiting DNA repair.

"Ideally, we want to try and prevent that repair from taking place, so that these cancer stem cells die or lose the ability to divide and grow," explained the researcher, who works in the Faculty's Department of Oncology.

The discovery is a critical first step in the development of a drug that can be used in the clinic, Hendzel says.

"We wanted to see if we could find a chemical to disrupt the process of repairing cancer stem cells, and we found a chemical that can do that."

His team conducted their research in a lab using cells. Their work was funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Hendzel's team, which includes Ismal Ismail, who conducted the experiments, is continuing their research.