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Getting to the root of cancer relapse

There’s an analogy that Dr. John Dick likes to use to describe cancer. For him, cancer is like a weed, with the tumour being the leafy part that sits above ground. The roots, on the other hand, are the cells that initiate and sustain a cancer’s growth.

“Like a weed, cancer can only be killed if the root is removed entirely,” says Dr. Dick, a senior scientist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. “This means finding ways to attack the cellular origins of cancer – its roots – which are a group of cells known as cancer stem cells (CSCs).”

For over a decade, Dr. Dick and his team of Ontario-based researchers have been doing just this. Thanks in part to funding from the Terry Fox Research Institute, the team has identified a number of key characteristics that define the “stemness” of CSCs, including how they propagate, resist chemotherapy and cause relapse in blood and brain cancers.

With renewal of their Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant (PPG) worth $5.45M over six years, they will expand their research, moving their focus beyond blood and brain cancers, and into other aggressive cancers such as colon cancer.

“Over the last few years, we realized that the signatures of stemness we were seeing in blood cancer stem cells were being identified by colleagues working in other tumour areas,” explains Dr. Dick. “It was only natural that we would embrace the collaborative spirit of the PPG and leverage the expertise of these colleagues to advance research in this important area.”

In this new PPG project, Dr. Dick and his team will focus on three main objectives:

  • To continue contributing to the scientific study and understanding of CSCs
  • To develop ways to track and find CSCs at diagnosis or during remission, identifying patients at high risk of relapse early on
  • To identify molecular targets within CSCs that can be exploited through treatment, finding ways to eradicate them and prevent them from causing recurrence and relapse.

“Our ultimate goal is to know as much as possible about these cells so we can target them,” says Dr. Dick. “By doing so we hope to be able to reduce therapy failure and increase patient survival.”

Building on past successes

This will be the third renewal for Dr. Dick’s PPG team. Previously funded projects include:

The team has made impressive breakthroughs, including: