Dr. Molly Brewer is an Associate Professor in the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center. She spoke with OCRF’s CEO, Elizabeth Howard, about stem cell research and ovarian cancer.
Elizabeth Howard: Why are stem cells important in cancer?
Dr. Molly Brewer: The cancer stem cell theory says that cancer is caused by damage to an adult stem cell, or a progenitor cell, that initiates cancer. Furthermore, these cells often survive treatment — they are not killed by chemotherapy — and are ultimately responsible for causing a cancer to recur. If we can understand this process, we can develop new therapies that successfully kill these cells, and prevent cancer from recurring.
EH: With the announcement that President Obama has released restrictions on stem cell research, what does this mean for research into ovarian cancer?
MB: President Obama has opened up the possibility of embryonic stem cell research being federally funded, which will increase embryonic stem cell research nationally. While this will probably not have a direct and immediate effect on ovarian cancer, it may have a long term effect. With the finding that IPS cells (stem cells that have been created from an adult cell through the introduction of genes that reprogram and transform it into a cell that has all the characteristics of an embryonic stem cell) can be pushed to differentiating mature cells, there will be increasing interest in trying to develop ovarian cancer from stem cells. Unfortunately, we are still a long way off from using this information to clinically improve our outcome for ovarian cancer.
EH: I am told by scientists that while the research involved with stem cells is vital and exciting, it is not going to give us a cure for all major diseases over night. What do we need to know?
MB: It’s true – cures won’t come over night. The most important aspect of research is funding projects that have great potential. Cancer research funding levels have been so low in the past that high risk projects have, for the most part, not been funded over the last three years. The availability of philanthropic funds for cancer research is extremely important, but people need to know that it takes years in the laboratory before findings can be translated into changes in patient care.