Dr. John Dick leads international team showing stem cells can be used to predict response to therapy in patients with AML
Posted: March 7, 2012 In: Portal Newsletter
Dr. John Dick, who pioneered the field of cancer stem cell research, has further advanced the field with his recently published work on leukemia stem cells. He led an international team that showed stem cells could be used to predict response to therapy in patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Dr. Dick is already well known for his discovery of leukemia stem cells in 1994 and colon cancer stem cells in 2007.
Whether all cancer cells within a tumour have the same characteristics or whether they are different is a question that cancer scientists have grappled with for some time. Over the last decade researchers have developed experimental models to try and find a definitive answer to this question. Dr. Dick’s research is unique in that it focuses on patients in order to determine the impact of different cell types in the clinical context of cancer.
The method used by Dr. Dick and his team was to sort, analyze and compare healthy stem cells, leukemia stem cells (LSC) and clinical data from patients with AML. Using this method they found a signature (a set of genes) that was common to both types of stem cells and demonstrated that the signature could be used to accurately predict the course of AML in patients. Patients with AML who also had a strong expression of the signature experienced a much shorter period of survival than those with a low expression.
“Our research shows that leukemia stem cells are relevant in a clinical setting and influence response to therapy and reoccurrence of AML. We believe that targeting and killing these stem cells will have a significant impact on patient survival,” says Dr. Dick.
Dr. Dick’s research provides the starting point for the development of new therapies aimed at LSC using the set of genes that comprise the AML signature as targets. The genes can also serve as biomarkers that could allow clinicians to determine which patients could benefit from more aggressive therapies and which could be spared more aggressive treatment. Biomarkers are like flags that can show the presence of a disease, or in this case, could be used to evaluate a patient’s response to therapy.
“Much of the previous research in the field of cancer stem cells was based on experimental models. Although this work is important, it is crucial that we try and deliver actionable information based upon patient-centered research. We hope that our approach with leukemia stem cells in AML can be applied by other groups studying different forms of cancer,” says Dr. Dick.
Dr. Dick is a Senior Scientist at the Ontario Cancer Institute, the research arm of the University Health Network’s Princess Margaret Hospital and the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine. He also serves as Director of the Cancer Stem Cells Program at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.