Researchers have identified a drug compound that can target and kill the stem cells that fuel tumors, spurring hopes for more effective treatment of breast, lung and brain tumors as well as other types of cancer.

“We now have a method that researchers anywhere in the world can use to find agents that can kill cancer stem cells and potentially treat cancer,” said Piyush Gupta, co-author of the study and a researcher at the Broad Institute.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology and the Broad Institute searched more than 16,000 drug compounds to find one that could destroy the stem cells, which drive the growth of tumors and are resistant to standard cancer therapies. The researchers found that salinomycin cut the number of stem cells at least 100 times more than Taxol, a common chemotherapy medicine.

These stem cells, if not eliminated, cause cancer to recur after chemotherapy. The MIT and Broad researchers determined that salinomycin can inhibit cancer development.

“We have now a systematic way to look for compounds that selectively kill cancer stem cells,” Gupta told Bloomberg. “We’ve taken a lot of the serendipity out of the equation."

Cancer breakthrough: Drug kills stem cells that fuel tumors
Drug compound called salinomycin selectively targets and kills stem cells that cause tumors to grow.