Being diagnosed with any form of cancer is a scary event that can turn a person’s world upside down. While cancer is never good, there are certain forms of the disease that are more threatening than others.
When it comes to women, especially post-menopausal women, endometrial cancer can be one of the most dreaded forms of the illness. Endometrial or uterine cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer of the reproductive system in women. Although there have been numerous strides in the battle against cancer in its many forms over recent years, endometrial cancer remains a difficult disease to treat, especially since it can contribute to occurrence of ovarian cancer. While there isn’t a cure for these cancers, a recent study is shedding additional light that may inform more effective treatment options.
Each year, approximately 12 million people are diagnosed with cancer in the United States. While that seems like a big number, and it is, it encompasses many different forms of the disease with many different treatment options. For some cases, the prognosis can be quite good, especially when the disease is caught early on. The number of women who will be diagnosed with uterine cancer is much smaller at around 60,000 in the United States. Within the category of uterine cancer, there are actually four different subtypes that women may experience. Endometrial cancer is the most common form of uterine cancer making up around 80% of uterine cancer diagnoses. When it comes to a diagnosis of endometrial cancer, the prognosis is often less optimistic.
The problem with treating endometrial cancer is that it’s very difficult to actually get rid of. For many women being treated with endometrial cancer, early treatments can be somewhat successful. Doctors will typically try removing the affected tissue and also a regimen of chemotherapy with the platinum-based drug cisplatin. In many cases, this treatment program will remove the cancer or cause it to go into remission, which is certainly good news. Unfortunately, when it comes to endometrial cancer, the remission typically does not last and the cancer will often return.
When the cancer does return, it often adapts to the previous methods of treatment so that while cisplatin was initially effective, it will cease to have an impact on the cancerous cells. Once the cancer becomes resistant to cisplatin, medical professionals have few treatment options left available to them and therefore the prognosis for recovery becomes less optimistic. Because endometrial cancer is so difficult to treat and to actually get rid of once and for all, researchers have been studying this version of the disease in hopes of getting a better understanding that will provide them with more treatment options.
A team of researchers from the Cleveland Clinic have recently published a report in the Journal of Experimental Medicine about the role of CD55 in endometrial cancer. The researchers examined cancer stem cells both in patients who had already been diagnosed with endometrial cancer and in tissue that had been grown in a laboratory. Cancer stem cells are essentially early forms of the cancerous cells that are growing in a particular region of the body. The goal of studying these early cells is to hopefully understand the disease at its beginning stages which may then allow physicians and researchers to provide more effective treatment earlier on.
In the initial stages of their research, the team from the Cleveland Clinic found that these cancer stem cells had an overabundance of CD55. CD55 is a protein that acts in a fairly unique way compared to other cells. While most cells either contribute to the self-regulation and growth of cells, or to developing therapeutic resistance that will protect the cells, the CD55 protein does both. Researchers found that the high presence of CD55 in cancer stem cells is part of what makes them resistant to treatment and therefore so difficult to get rid of. But on the flipside, when the team from the Cleveland Clinic removed the CD55 protein from the cancer stem cells, the cells became vulnerable to treatment from chemotherapy drug cisplatin.
We should note that at this point the removal of CD55 from cancer stem cells has only been tested in cell culture models and with mice. Theoretically, removing the excess of CD55 should make the cancerous cells vulnerable and therefore treatable. So far, this hypothesis has held up in the lab. The research team is moving forward with additional preclinical trials in the hopes of then testing this theory in clinical trials with patients who suffer from endometrial cancer.
Implications of the results
At this point, the implications for treatment of patients with endometrial cancer are guarded. Since the study is still in the pre-clinical trial stages, there aren’t any new treatment options available at this time. But the results that the Cleveland Clinic team have gathered so far are promising, and if they continue to replicate these results in further studies, then new treatment methods may follow close behind.
One of the possible implications of these results even at this early stage in the research process has to do with how medical professionals approach the CD55 protein. So far, when this protein is removed from the cancer stem cells, the cancer becomes vulnerable to treatment. The CD55 protein is such a potent cell because of its dual role controlling both cell growth and resistance. While that combination has made it traditionally difficult to treat and is part of why endometrial cancer is especially hard to get rid of, removing the CD55 protein could prove equally potent.
Without the CD55 protein to regulate cell growth and resistance, the cancer stem cells won’t have the same arsenal of defenses. In trials so far, this has allowed researchers to continue treating the cancer effectively with cisplatin. Theoretically, medical professionals could remove the CD55 protein from the cancer stem cells in a patient and then have greater or total success in killing the cancerous cells with the platinum-based drug.
In addition to possible removing the CD55 protein for the sake of making the cancer cells vulnerable to treatment, researchers are also hypothesizing that the protein could be used in the diagnosis process. Because there is such a huge amount of CD55 in patients suffering from endometrial cancer, researchers believe that an excessive amount of the protein may be a marker for the disease in its early stages. If this is the case, then medical professionals could be able to identify the cancer and begin treatment at an earlier stage which would likely lead to more successful treatment.
The results of the study from the Cleveland Clinic won’t provide the medical community with any new drugs, but the insights that are being gained could still prove invaluable. Cancer is undoubtedly a difficult disease to treat. The lack of knowledge that still surrounds the disease and its many subtypes is part of what makes it so difficult to get rid of. While the research is still in the pre-clinical phase, the medical community already has a better understanding of endometrial cancer based off what we’ve learned about the CD55 protein. If the results of this research continue on their current trajectory, then medical professionals may be able to strip the cancer cells of their defenses so that chemotherapy drugs like cisplatin remain effective.