BACKGROUND: One of this country's leading stem cell brain cancer researchers is Alfredo Quinones, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In addition to being a brain surgeon, he also runs his own research lab, studying stem cells and their role in brain cancers. He hopes to one day replace the invasive surgical tools of conventional brain surgery with noninvasive stem cell therapies that could destroy tumors and repair damaged tissue. His work has garnered many prestigious grants, including the Howard Hughes Award.
AMERICAN DREAM: Quinones has come a long way since he left Mexico at 18, illegally entering the US to escape the impoverished conditions of his hometown. Initially he worked as a field hand, but soon enrolled in community college to learn English, where he excelled in math and science courses, as well as joining the debate team. He eventually earned a degree in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, on a scholarship, and was admitted to Harvard Medical School, earning his MD in 1999. Quinones is also a strong believer in education and outreach, and uses his prominent position to reach out to the Hispanic community, determined to show young people how much one can achieve.
WHAT ARE STEM CELLS: Stem cells are distinguished from other cells in the body in two ways. First, they are unspecialized cells -- i.e., they do not begin with any specific function within the body -- and can renew themselves through cell division over long periods of time. Second, it is possible to induce them to turn into cells with specific functions. Scientists want to study stem cells in the laboratory in order to learn what makes them different from other specialized types of cells. Specifically, they would like to now how they remain unspecialized and self-renewing for so many years, and what signals within the body cause them to turn into specialized cells. By doing so, it may one day be possible to uses tem cells in cell-based therapies, as well as for screening new drugs and toxins, and for gaining a better understanding of birth defects.
ABOUT CANCER STEM CELLS: Scientists previously believed that tumors are lumps of cancerous tissue that must be eliminated completely to cure a patient. But over the last five years, cancer researchers have learned that not all cancer cells are created equal. In the same way that normal tissue in the body is generated from stem cells, so is cancer. CSCs are the ultimate source of the tumor, consistently supplying it with new cells. So it is possible that we need not kill all cancer cells to rid a patient of the disease. Targeting the CSCs specifically might be much more efficient.