Why do some cancers go away and others come back time and time again? Pediatric neurosurgeon Sheila Singh believes the answer lies in cancer stem cells.
Brain tumours are one of the most aggressive types of tumours and despite gold standard therapy – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy – patients usually have only months to live after diagnosis with cancers like glioblastoma. Despite the current odds, Singh, a stem cell scientist at McMaster University, knows we can do better.
In Singh’s experience, two patients could have the exact same cancer and same clinical care but very different outcomes. She went into research because she knew she would never be able to explain why one patient would live while the other died if she just studied clinical neurosurgery – the answer was in molecular biology.
During the pediatric neuropathology rotation of her neurosurgery residence, Singh saw that tumours that appeared the same on the surface were actually heterogeneous, meaning they were made up of different cell types.
“It’s a challenge and an inspiration to take care of children when they are sick,” says Singh. “Children don’t feel sorry for themselves when something bad happens to them. They just keep on moving.”
Today, Dr. Singh and her research group are trying to parse out those different cell types and determine their properties, functions, and how they arise in the body. Singh believes that there must be some cells types within a tumour that are escaping all of the gold standard therapies and lying dormant only to arise again after the treatment is completed causing the patient to relapse and die.
She thinks that those cells are abnormal stem cells. In understanding how stem cells develop, how they evade therapy and how they cause tumours to recur, Singh’s group at the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute hopes they will be able to determine how to better target these cells and eradicate the tumour completely, so that the patient can survive.