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Breast Cancer Stem Cells Can’t Take The Heat

November 8, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging
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Heating breast tumor cells after zapping them with radiation not only shrinks the tumor but actually kills cancer stem cells, according to new research reported in the October issue of Science Translational Medicine.

The secret weapon: tiny gold nanoshells. The nanoshells—100-nanometer silica spheres with gold shells—are administered intravenously and enter the tumor through the leaky blood vessels that nourish it. A near-infrared laser then heats the nanoshells for about 20 minutes, raising the temperature of the tumor from 37 degrees C (98.6 F) to 42 C (107.6 F).

Even that modest amount of heating dramatically reduced the number of cancer stem cells. That’s important because, especially with certain types of tumors, cancer stem cells that survive radiation or chemotherapy will regrow the tumor.

Rachel Atkinson, the Baylor University graduate student who is first author of the study, discovered the effect by accident, according to a news release from The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas.

“I stumbled on this when I was a first-year graduate student,” Atkinson said. “I was working with radiation and cancer stem cells, which are resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I had treated my cells with radiation and left them over the weekend. When I returned on Monday, I was disappointed because my cancer stem cells were dead and the normal cells were fine.”

When she opened the incubator, her glasses fogged, indicating that the temperature had risen over the weekend. As she began looking into the effects of heat after radiation, she teamed with researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center who were using nanoshells to deliver hyperthermia (heating). The report eventually included contributors from Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson, and The Methodist Hospital, all in Houston.

Atkinson achieved excellent results with her radiation-plus-heat regimen even with the aggressive and difficult-to-treat triple negative breast cancer.

“We were focusing on the cancer stem cells, not just the shrinking of the tumor,” said Jeffrey Rosen, PhD, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Baylor and a senior author of the report. “Decreasing the size of the tumor is not a good endpoint. You can shrink the tumor with drugs or radiation, but it does not kill the stem cells.”

Jenny Chang, MD, formerly of Baylor College of Medicine and newly named director of the Methodist Cancer Center, is also a senior author of the report. She said:

These findings have tremendous clinical implications. The use of gold nanoshells with heating and radiation could eliminate cancer stem cells as well as the bulk of the tumor, which may improve survival in women with breast cancer.

Related seminar: Breast & Women’s Imaging Seminar

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