William Matsui, MD, wrote the following guest post. Bill was recently named deputy director of the LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes of the Dell Medical School, and will formally join Dell Med’s faculty in June 2018. He is a hematologic oncologist whose research integrates cancer with developmental and stem cell biology, focusing primarily on acute lymphoblastic leukemia and multiple myeloma. Bill joins Dell Med from the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Aside from the initial cancer diagnosis, the news that cancer has returned is often the most disheartening news that a patient can hear. Even toward the very beginning of my medical career, I was puzzled as to why so many cancers return even though surgery or chemotherapy have produced complete remissions — in some diseases, the vast majority of patients almost inevitably relapse. During my subsequent training in medical oncology, I began to try to understand how and why cancers return. This has become the focus of my research career.
I first studied multiple myeloma, a cancer of the immune system for which newly diagnosed patients routinely achieve complete remissions with chemotherapy, but almost always later relapse. This pattern of tumor regrowth after all traces have been eradicated suggests that some cancer cells must have two special properties, namely: 1) they are not, in fact, eradicated by treatment, and 2) they have the ability to give rise to more cells. Studying multiple myeloma cells isolated from patients, we showed that only one in 10,000 to 100,000 cells have the ability to grow and produce new tumor cells. Along with other groups who had similar findings in breast cancer and brain tumors, we called these cells “cancer stem cells.” We found that they were much more resistant to most drugs used to treat multiple myeloma, and these properties suggested that it was these cancer stem cells were responsible for disease relapse.
We later used similar methods to identify cancer stem cells in pancreatic cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma. A special feature shared by cancer stem cells in all of these tumor types is the ability to maintain their growth potential indefinitely, a process called self-renewal, and we have been trying to find the factors that are responsible for this property. As a result, we have identified several pathways that regulate both normal stem cells as well as those active during normal embryonic development. We have also developed therapies to try to inhibit these pathways and eliminate cancer stem cells, and have carried out novel clinical trials testing these treatments in the clinic.
I have carried out this research at Johns Hopkins and, as a medical oncologist, have cared for patients with blood and bone marrow cancers for the past 18 years. By joining the LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes and Dell Medical School, I plan to continue my laboratory research as well as develop clinical programs to care for patients with these diseases. I’m excited by the wealth of world-class basic science at The University of Texas at Austin and look forward to bringing new ideas to better diagnose and treat cancers from the laboratory into the clinic.