Destroying cancer stem cells

Erin DickersonErin Dickerson, Ph.D., recipient of Masonic pilot support and member of the U’s veterinary clinical sciences faculty, is driven to end the devastation caused by head and neck cancers.

“People with head and neck cancers have some of the worst prognoses, with five-year survival rates of approximately 50 percent,” says Dickerson. “Not only are the cancers difficult to treat, but they have a huge impact on the daily lives of patients. Many have trouble eating, drinking, or even swallowing, so every minute of every day can be a challenge. We would like to change this.”

If Dickerson’s hunch is correct, one of the biggest obstacles to effectively treating head and neck cancers is the presence of cancer stem cells, which remain in the body after treatment and contribute to relapse. Her team is looking to destroy these cells and recently found a signaling mechanism responsible for their survival, a discovery made possible by Masonic funding. They have since leveraged new support to continue this research and are now looking for interventions to prevent cancer stem cell survival.  

“Our team recently received a private grant to continue this work and also applied for another grant from the National Institutes of Health. We would not have been able to apply for these grants without the support of Minnesota Masonic Charities.”

A Masonic Scholar, too

Five years ago, Erin Dickerson was a recipient of the Masonic Scholar award, which supports scientists at critical points in their careers.

Dickerson used this funding to partner with colleagues at Texas Tech University to study the role of blood pressure drugs called beta blockers in stopping the growth of a tumor known as angiosarcoma.

Angiosarcoma, which begins in the cells that line blood vessels, is challenging to treat because it is aggressive and can go undetected until late in the course of development. If Dickerson and her team are successful, beta blockers may be used to extend the lives of many people affected by this cancer.