Indian American doctor eyes stem cell bomb against cancer

By Arun Kumar, IANS
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

WASHINGTON - An Indian-American cancer physician and researcher holds out hope for a next generation of drugs attacking malignant stem cells to slay what he calls the “Emperor of All Maladies” - cancer.

“If stem cells can be found for certain forms of cancer, and if a drug can be found to kill these cells in humans, then the clinical impact of such a discovery would obviously be enormous,” wrote Siddhartha Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of medical oncology at Columbia University in The New York Times.

“And its scientific impact would be just as profound. Centuries after the discovery of cancer as a disease, we are learning not just how to treat it - but what cancer truly is,” he said in the article adapted from his book “Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” which will be published by Scribner next month.

Estimating that in 2010, about 600,000 Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer, Mukherjee’s comprehensive “biography” traces the origins of cancer, one of the most virulent diseases prevalent today.

He recounts how modern treatments-multi-pronged chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, as well as preventative care-came into existence thanks to a century’s worth of research, trials, and small, essential breakthroughs around the globe.

Mukherjee, who grew up in New Delhi, finished his clinical fellowship in Boston in 2005 and then moved to New York four years later to set up a laboratory. His lab studies leukaemia stem cells in “the quest to create drugs that will wipe out malignant stem cells while sparing normal stem cells.”

Discussing various strategies for producing anticancer drugs, he says in the stem-cell hypothesis of cancer “the most difficult challenge for drug discovery, though, lies perhaps in modelling the self-renewing behaviour of cancer stem cells.”

If one looked at cancers using appropriate conceptual lenses, Mukherjee suggests “we might find that tumours possess their own anatomy and physiology - a parallel universe to that of normal cells and organs.”

“Such a tumour can hardly be described as a disorganized group of cells. It is a cellular empire, with its own sustenance, grammar, logic and organization. It is a growing being within a growing being,” he says.

Likening the quest to discriminate between normal and malignant cells to “one of those devastating surgical operations to separate conjoined twins, he says “Every drug that kills cancer stem cells might also kill the normal stem cells.”

“This operation, too, might end in tragedy for both twins. But it might not - and therein resides the hope for a next generation of drugs,” Mukherjee concluded.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at

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