Stem cell research offers new hope for oesophageal cancer treatment

17 Jan 2017

Concept image of radiotherapy acting against cancer cells. Image: Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock

A team including Trinity College Dublin researchers has made a major breakthrough in the treatment of oesophageal cancer using stem cell research, which could offer a means of fighting resistance to treatment.

Despite being one of the most common types of cancer both in Ireland and the world, treating oesophageal cancer has proven incredibly difficult.

Patients with this cancer are typically treated with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. While a small number have an excellent response to treatment, the majority show a resistance that will see them suffer some of the side effects of such aggressive treatments.

Now, new research from an Irish-led international team has discovered that a molecule lost from cancer stem cells, called miR-17, is important in driving oesophageal tumour resistance to radiotherapy.

By identifying this molecule, the team demonstrated that populations of tumour cells that had higher numbers of cancer stem cells formed larger, more aggressive tumours.

It also demonstrated that the cancer stem cells were more resistant to radiation-induced cell death.

The team of scientists were from Trinity College Dublin (TCD), St James’s Hospital Dublin, the Coombe Women and Infant’s University Hospital and the University of Hull in the UK, and was led by Dr Stephen Maher.

Cancer stem cells no longer hypothetical

“This work is extremely important in understanding why tumours are inherently resistant to radiotherapy, and how they can acquire resistance,” Maher said of this latest research, which was published in the journal Oncotarget .

“Our findings strongly suggest that it is the cancer stem cell population that we need to destroy if treatment is going to be effective in our oesophageal cancer patients.”

He continued: “Up until recently, cancer stem cells were largely considered hypothetical, as there were no clear ways to identify and isolate them.

“In this study we spent a tremendous effort in identifying tumour cells that had biological markers normally characteristic of stem cells. Once we had identified these stem-like tumour cells, we isolated them and started to pick apart their biology.”

Possible use in treating other diseases

Offering possible hope for treating other diseases as well, the research team found a synthetic version of miR-17 placed into resistant cells became more sensitive to radiation.

“Going forward, we could use synthetic miR-17 as an addition to radiotherapy to enhance its effectiveness in patients,” said TCD’s Dr Niamh Lynam-Lennon, who was heavily involved in the research,

“This is a real possibility as a number of other synthetic miR-molecules are currently in clinical trials for treating other diseases.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic