Closer Look at Cancer Stem Cells Should Help Hasten Mesothelioma Drugs

Fountain in Singapore

Researchers in Singapore have uncovered new technology for studying cancer stem cells that could spark quicker development of a more effective therapy to fight mesothelioma.

The findings came from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanatechnology and should help scientists better understand why mesothelioma often does not respond to chemotherapy drugs and radiation that work with other cancers.

Mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer caused by an exposure to asbestos, has no cure and a diagnosis normally comes with life expectancy of 6-18 months.

The research was centered on cancer stem cells, which comprise only 1 percent of a normal cancer tumor.  They traditionally are more resistant to chemotherapy and often repopulate a tumor even after much of it has been destroyed. The stem cells are what leads to cancer recurrence.

Researchers in the past have been frustrated by the time and expense that it takes to test different anti-cancer drugs with the stem cells in the laboratory. In the past, conventional drug-screening methods have required large sample volumes that were in short supply.

The new technology includes miniaturized biological assay called Droplet Array. It will be less expensive, faster and more convenient for drug screenings. And it will require only limited samples because it uses a miniaturized biochip.

“The Droplet Array marks a significant breakthrough in nanotechnology and lab-on-a-chip concepts, and provides an efficient platform for accelerating drug screening and development,” said Jackie Ying, lead researcher, in a news release issued by the Institute. “We hope this finding will facilitate the development of more effective cancer drugs.”

Using the Droplet Array, for example, researchers there were able to investigate the response to chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, using small amounts of stem cells from breast, liver and colon cancers.

What they found, and later confirmed by tests using laboratory mice, was that the cancer stem cells were resistant to the drug, while the majority of the cancer cells were not.

Cancer tumor cells — without the stem cells — implanted in mice did not return after being treated with doxorubicin. But mice with the cancer stem cells showed tumor regrowth, despite the treatment with doxorubicin. It confirmed the inability of the drug to stop the stem cell growth.

“The study of cancer stem cells, in particular, is an exciting application of this technology for both academic and pharmaceutical industries,” Ying said. “We hope to leverage on the Droplet Array’s capabilities to complement/replace animal models for drug toxicity testing, and develop new cancer diagnostics.”

The miniaturized biochip is designed for ease of use and is compatible with most existing laboratory instruments. It also reduces set-up costs and any need for additional equipment, according to the Institute, the first bioengineering and nanotechnology research institute in the world.


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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