Cancer Stem Cell Scientists Get $1.7M to Develop New Leukemia Drugs

Researchers Studying Agents to Target Key Cells in Cancer Growth

August 23, 2007

"Modern cancer treatments fail to get to the root of the cancer – the stem cells – which is why many cancers recur despite aggressive treatment."

Cancer stem cell researchers at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center have received grants totaling $1.7 million to pursue the study of experimental therapies that target leukemia stem cells.

Cancer stem cells are the first cells that undergo mutations leading to cancer and are thought to be key targets for therapy. Cancer stem cells are not embryonic stem cells, the focus of heated debate.

The team of scientists, led by scientists Craig Jordan, Ph.D., and Monica Guzman, Ph.D., will use the funding to develop new therapies to attack leukemia stem cells. Each of the grants covers a different aspect of drug development. 

The $857,000 National Institutes of Health grant will support basic science investigation of new drugs and models for treatment. A Leukemia and Lymphoma Society grant of $600,000 will focus on the creation of a new leukemia drug, based on promising research by Guzman. And $230,000 from the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation will support exploration of ways to identify promising new drugs and is based on a unique computer method developed by Duane Hassane, Ph.D., a senior member of the research team.

This research is significant because modern cancer treatments fail to get to the root of the cancer – the stem cells – which is why many cancers recur despite aggressive treatment.

Jordan’s lab has already seen promising results with a new compound, developed from a daisy-like plant known as feverfew or bachelor’s button.  A component of the plant called parthenolide is the first single agent known to act on leukemias at the stem-cell level.

Jordan and Guzman are now working with University of Kentucky chemists to create a water-soluble form of parthenolide that can be used by people with leukemia.  They expect the new drug will enter Phase I clinical trials later this year.

Jordan is director of Translational Research for Hematologic Malignancies at Wilmot Cancer Center and associate professor of Medicine and Biomedical Genetics.  Guzman is a senior instructor in the Hematology/Oncology Division. 

This research effort is a key part of the Wilmot Cancer Center’s cancer stem cell research program, which Jordan co-leads with Hartmut “Hucky” Land, Ph.D., and Mark Noble, Ph.D.  The Medical Center’s top scientists are collaborating to discover cures for cancer by closely examining the “master cells” of this deadly disease. This program is one of only a handful of formal programs in the United States.

If scientists can better understand the mechanisms of cancer stem cells, it could change beliefs about how cancers spread and how tumors can be treated more effectively. The biological problem caused by cancer stem cells is that they may represent just a small fraction of all tumor cells, but they have the ability to re-create a whole tumor after other cancer cells are destroyed by current treatment methods.

The Wilmot Cancer Center has one of the largest programs for hematologic malignancies in the Northeast. Wilmot has a team of 10 hematologists, specializing in leukemias and lymphomas, working in concert with scientists to develop new therapies for better treatments for people with these cancers.

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