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Kimple Lab Stem Cell Grant Extended

Research Specialist Kwang Nickle, Professor Randall Kimple, Research Intern Austin Maas

The stem cell theory of cancer suggests that a small subset of cancerous cells drives tumor growth. Unlike non-stem cancer cells, these cancer-initiating cells have unlimited potential for division. They are also difficult to detect.

With a grant from the V Foundation for Cancer Research, researchers in the Kimple Lab in the Department of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health have been working on a project to identify head and neck cancer stem cells and better understand their role. This grant has provided $100,000 annually for this work for the past two years and has recently been extended for a third year.

“Studying these cancer stem cells is important because they are probably some of the first cancer cells that develop in a patient and because they tend to be resistant to therapy,” says Dr. Randy Kimple, DHO assistant professor. “You can kill the non-stem cells, but the cancer comes back if you don’t kill the stem cells.”

This work is still preliminary, but the ultimate goal of this line of research is to develop treatments that specifically target cancer stem cells without affecting normal tissue.

One of the challenges of developing ways to kill cancer stem cells is the difficulty of identifying them in patients. “We can detect them in the lab by putting them through functional assays—looking at how they grow and the conditions they’ll grow in. We can create conditions that only grow the stem cells and not other cancer cells, but that’s much more challenging to do in a patient,” Kimple says.

The grant extension will enable the Kimple Lab to continue the work begun by Anirban Chatterjee, a postdoctoral research associate. In the past two years Chatterjee has identified genes that mark cancer stem cells and studied how the number of stem cells in a tumor affect patient outcomes and how the level of cancer stem cells affects response to treatment in animal models.

The goal of this next phase of the grant is to take these initial findings from animal model systems and translate them to the study of human tumor tissue.