When Dianne Keaton took her blouse off in the movie THE FAMILY STONE, I was quite happy for a second — a major movie star undressing?

And then, in an instant, the mood changed. I jerked back in my theater seat, and made a soundless inward scream.

Her breasts were gone. In their place was a short horizontal red scar line.

Her character had had a double mastectomy — amputation for breast cancer.

The point the movie was trying to make (I think) was that cancer survivors have a right to a normal life, including the romantic aspects, instead of thinking of themselves as a permanently wounded person. That makes sense, of course.


But the impact on me when I saw those red lines?

My mother died of that.

Ms. Keaton’s character survived because they caught the cancer early, when the deadly disease was still contained in her breasts, and could be removed with them. But if they had waited until the cancer spread to her internal organs, like the lungs?

When the cancer spreads rapidly (metastasizes) into other organs, that is when people die.

Chemotherapy? That blasts the body with poison, killing cancer cells. It is often effective, and may save the person’s life — but it also kills a lot of other body tissue, like the hair follicles, which is why cancer survivors go bald.

Chemotherapy is “like destroying an anthill with an atomic bomb; there’s a lot of collateral damage.”–Todd Dubnicoff , THE STEM CELLAR, July 27, 2017

But what if the chemo-therapy could be narrowly targeted?

Remember the war movie RAMBO where Sylvester Stallone used exploding arrows? There was a hand grenade on the tip of the arrow. Chiseled muscles flexing mightily, Stallone would pull back the drawstring, and let loose the arrow-bomb — and he was such a good shot that he only killed bad people!

Imagine a stem cell like that amazing arrow. Loaded with chemotherapy, it makes its way politely through all the good cells — excuse me, please, sorry, coming through — until it reaches the cancer. The stem cell would stay there for a little bit, stuck in the tumor: and then, at a signal, release the chemo.

This work was performed at the Sue and Bill Gross Hall: A CIRM Institute, at UC Irvine. The idea seems important, and may go forward in the future. Here is how the CIRM weblog team saw it:

“…a UC Irvine (UCI) team has devised a stem cell-based technique that can seek out and destroy breast cancer cells that have metastasized in the lungs of mice by sensing the stiffness of the surrounding tissue.”


At UC Irvine, Dr. Weian Zhao is using mesenchymal stem cells to fight breast cancer. Aided by UCI doctoral students Linan Liu and Shirley Zhang, Dr. Zhao is sending the stem cell equivalent of “exploding arrows” into the cancer.

This is cool; listen close.

The side effects of chemotherapy are caused by the chemo killing good cells. If the chemo could be targeted to do just its job, attacking the bad cells, side effects could be minimized, or gone.

The question is: how do we send the chemo to the cancer — just the cancer?

You have heard how doctors tell women to do self-examinations, searching for lumps on their breasts? Those lumps are caused by a stiffening of body cells, brought about by certain enzymes. The stem cells could be engineered to seek out the enzymes.

With the Zhao method, the loaded stem cells travel through the body until reaching the stiffened tissue — and only then is the chemotherapy released.

“UCI Researchers use stem cells as cancer-seeking missiles”, Jacob Margolis, July 28, 2017.

It is more complicated than that, of course; the process has to be set up. The patient may have to take some pills first, or have an injection.

But what a tremendous victory it might be….

“These engineered stem cells accumulated in tumors, delivering the first half of a two-part cancer therapy: the enzyme cytosine deaminase. A drug called 5-fluorocytosine was then delivered systemically, and cytosine deaminase in the tumors activated the drug, providing local anticancer activity with no off-target damage in mice…”


As of this date, Dr. Zhao has not applied for a CIRM grant on his approach to fighting breast cancer. We spoke several times on the phone, and he does plan to apply for CIRM funding in the near future, in hopes of translating this novel treatment to the clinic.

Until human trials are done, the value of the technique cannot be known.

“Zhao acknowledged that his team has a while to go before it can prove that the treatment is effective in people. So far, it’s only been tested in mice. As a result, FDA approval and human trials could be years away.”


How important is it that exploratory work like Dr. Zhao’s go forward?

Ask the “one woman in 8 who will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.….over 252,710 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer (this year alone — DR)… more than 40,500 will die. On average, every 2 minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer; and every 13 minutes, 1 woman will die of breast cancer.”