Healthwatch: Separating the Bad from the Good

What patients ask about cancer surgery is what makes cancer such a tenacious foe. Cancer researcher Michael Clarke says only a special class of rare cells has the fearsome spreading powers of cancer.

"They are very long-lived. They can divide an immense number of times and they also in many cases have the ability to migrate," said Clarke.

Clarke is talking about stem cells, which normally maintain and replenish our body's cells. As he wrote in "Scientific American" magazine, he's convinced that cancer is a case of good stem cells gone bad.

"They were formerly good and they, and absolutely required for our existence that and because of these bad decisions these genetic mutations lead to cancer they now become evil. And they are the cells that kill us," said Clarke.

Using a sophisticated machine that sorts out stem cells from tissue samples, Clarke and his colleagues at Stanford University's Stem Cell Institute found they can also isolate cancer stem cells from tumors.

"So using this machine we can confirm that only the stem cell population can form a new tumor," said Clarke.

The institute's director, Irv Weissman, says isolating these cancer culprits in the lab could reveal how to stop them in the body.

"So what we want to do is to take advantage of an understanding of that pathway to the cancer, to attack the cancer in the patient," said Irv Weissman of Stanford University.

That will mean future cancer treatments might not need to eliminate every last cancer cell, just the ringleaders.

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