Stem cell research and treatment for cancer

May is National Cancer Research Month

researchAs a Cancer AnswerLine nurse, I’m often asked by a caller, “Can I have treatment for my cancer with stem cells? I have read that U-M is involved with stem cell research.” This simple question has a very complex answer.

All of the blood cells in your body start out as young (immature) cells called hematopoietic, (or blood-forming), stem cells.

Stem cells mostly live in the bone marrow (the spongy center of certain bones), where they divide to make new blood cells. Once blood cells are mature they leave the bone marrow and enter the bloodstream. A small number of stem cells also get into the bloodstream. These are called peripheral blood stem cells.

One type of “stem cell treatment” is a stem cell transplant, which restores the stem cells when the bone marrow has been destroyed by disease, chemotherapy, or radiation. Depending on the source of the stem cells, this procedure may be called a bone marrow transplant, a peripheral blood stem cell transplant, or a cord blood transplant. Bone marrow transplants are a type of adult stem cell-based therapy that has been in widespread clinical use for more than 40 years. Stem cell transplants can benefit people with a variety of both cancerous and non-cancerous diseases.

The University of Michigan is involved in four types of stem cell research:  embryonic, adult, cancer and reprogrammed cells (known as iPS cells).

What is an embryonic stem cell?

Embryonic stem cells exist only at the earliest stages of embryonic development and are capable of making any cell type in the body. Under the right conditions, these cells retain the ability to divide and make copies of themselves indefinitely. Because they can give rise to any type of cell in the body, researchers believe embryonic stem cells offer great potential for developing new ways to treat disease.

What is an adult stem cell?

Adult stem cells are present in everyone — adults, children, newborn infants, and even developing fetuses. Adult stem cells are more limited and specialized than embryonic stem cells. They have the ability to make just one or two kinds of tissue, such as blood cells, immune system cells, brain cells or muscle cells. Adult stem cells also have a more limited capacity to replace themselves than do embryonic stem cells.

What is a cancer stem cell?

Cancer stem cells are the small number of cells within a tumor that are capable of generating a new tumor. This means these are the cells actually fueling cancer’s growth and spread. These cells are resistant to current chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which may explain why cancer often comes back after initial treatment.

What is an iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cell?

iPS cells are adult cells reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells. While iPS cells are an exciting discovery for advancing stem cell research and an understanding of the biology, these cells could never be used in patients because they are made by using viruses to reprogram the adult cells. This process predisposes the cells to cancer.

The U-M Center for Stem Cell Biology’s main goal is to determine the fundamental mechanisms that regulate stem cell function. That knowledge, in turn, provides new insights into the origins of disease and suggests new approaches to disease treatment. Most of the work involves adult stem cells — including blood-forming and nervous system stem cells — but human embryonic stem cells also are studied. Currently, no cancer therapies are available based on this work.

At the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, we believe treatments designed to target and destroy cancer stem cells will revolutionize how we treat cancer. If these stem cells were eliminated, the cancer would be unable to grow and spread to other locations in the body. In addition to robust laboratory research to understand these cells, the Cancer Center is offering several clinical trials to assess treatments designed to target cancer stem cells.

Visit umclinicalstudies.org to search for a clinical trial or discuss this option with your oncologist. If you have further questions, please call the Cancer AnswerLine for assistance at 1-800-865-1125.

Continue learning about stem cells and stem cell transplant


researchThe Cancer AnswerLine™ is a dedicated phone line at the Comprehensive Cancer Center that is staffed by oncology nurses five days a week, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. at 800-865-1125. They have a combined 105 years of experience helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer.



CCC 25 years button150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.