Solving the mysteries of cancer stem cells
With the support of the Canadian Cancer Society in the 1960s, Dr James Till and Dr Ernest McCulloch discovered that all of the types of blood cells in our body are formed from rare stem cells found in the bone marrow. Years later, Dr John Dick, senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, suspected that cancers might also grow from a rare, abnormal type of stem cell. Cancer stem cells would act as the “root” of the cancer, slowly generating new cancer cells, feeding the growth of the tumour and allowing it to escape treatment or come back afterwards.
In the 1990s, Dr Dick first discovered cancer stem cells that led to leukemia, pioneering the field of cancer stem cell research. Dr Dick, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto and holds the Canada Research Chair in stem cell biology, would later also find colon cancer stem cells.
These discoveries have transformed how scientists around the world think about how cancer starts and grows. They have also revealed that new cancer treatments may need to destroy cancer stem cells to ensure the cancer doesn’t come back.
The Canadian Cancer Society has been a proud supporter of Dr Dick’s research for more than 30 years, and in 2000 we recognized his outstanding achievements in cancer research with the Robert L. Noble Prize. “Donors to the Canadian Cancer Society have played a key role in establishing world-class stem cell research in Canada. I’m thankful for their long-term support and encouragement,” says Dr Dick.
Dr Dick is known worldwide for developing new ways to study stem cells in the blood, allowing researchers to explore how abnormal cells lead to leukemia and other blood disorders. In 2015, by developing new ways to study single cells, he made the surprising and important discovery that specialized blood cells develop much more quickly from stem cells than previously thought, shifting researchers’ view of how blood cells are made.
With support from Society donors, Dr Dick is continuing to investigate the differences between normal blood stem cells and the cancer stem cells that lead to leukemia. By tracing the changes that normal blood cells need to undergo to turn into cancer, this research may find new ways to treat leukemia and enable early detection and prevention.