University of Illinois researchers are sending tiny drug-laden nanoparticles on a mission to seek and destroy cancer stem cells, the elusive and rare cells that can cause cancer to come back even when years have passed since the initial tumor was treated.
In a study led by Dipanjan Pan, an Illinois professor of bioengineering, researchers designed nanoparticles that specifically bind to a protein that marks the surface of breast cancer stem cells. Encapsulated in the particles is the drug niclosamide – a drug commonly prescribed around the world to treat tapeworm infections, but in cancer stem cells it turns off key gene pathways that give the cells the stemlike properties that enable them to grow and spread.
“It is critical to administer treatments for already-developed tumors; however, long-term survival and not allowing it to come back are equally important,” Pan said. “We want to destroy the cells that are hidden in the tissue and cause the cancer to come back or spread to other parts of the body.”
Cancer stem cells represent a tiny fraction of cells in a tumor, but it only takes one or two to seed a new tumor, Pan said. The challenge for physicians and researchers is not only finding these cells, but treating them. Pan’s group created nanoparticles that target a protein called CD44, which only appears on the surface of cancer stem cells, and tested them on breast cancer tumors in cell cultures and in live mice.