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Toronto team focuses on better understanding cancer ‘stemness’ to improve therapy and increase survival for patients with high-risk cancers

This project has been completed

There is an analogy senior scientist Dr. John Dick uses when explaining his TFRI-funded cancer stem cell (CSC) research. He compares cancer to a weed that has a separate root to the stem, branches and leaves, with the tumour as the leafy top.

“Cancer, just like a weed, can only be killed if the root is removed entirely – not just the tumour at the top,” says Dr. Dick, from his laboratory in Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. “In our studies, cancer stem cells were found to act like the root and were responsible for initiating and sustaining cancer growth.”

Not all cancer cells in a tumour are created equally or function the same, he remarks, much like parts of a plant. It is the “stemness” characteristic of CSCs that is responsible for both patients’ response to treatment and the cancer’s ability to regenerate and spread.

Building on his previously funded program project grants and important findings, Dr. Dick’s latest funded, five-year project aims to understand the nature of the CSCs in high-risk cancers, including two blood cancers (acute myeloid leukemia and myeloma) and one solid tumour (glioblastoma, a type of brain tumour). These are cancers with poor outcomes that are urgently in need of better treatments.

“Our discoveries will provide us with a better understanding of cancer recurrence that can reappear months or years later from the surviving CSC,” he says. “We want to find the Achilles heel of these cells and target them to be able to reduce therapy failure and ultimately increase patient survival.”

Dr. Dick credits TFRI with giving his team the opportunity to “delve into unexplored areas” and expand on their groundbreaking cancer stem cell discoveries.

“We’ve had a great team and we’ve worked on this very collaboratively, says Dr. Dick. “We’re looking forward to harnessing our collective insights in a concerted way. It’s very gratifying to get this support from TFRI again for another five years.”