Brain and Body

Scientists Transformed Skin Cells into Stem Cells That Seek and Destroy Brain Cancer

March 7, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Macroscopic pathology of glioblastoma.
Photo credit: Sbrandner/Wikipedia - GNU Free Documentation License

They increased the survival time in mice by 160 to 220 percent!

For the first time in over 30 years, scientists may have discovered a new and more effective treatment for glioblastoma, or highly cancerous brain tumors. By building on a Nobel Prize-winning stem cell technology, the researchers successfully turned skin cells into stem cells that seek out and destroy the highly malignant brain tumors.

“Our work represents the newest evolution of the stem-cell technology that won the Nobel Prize in 2012,” Shawn Hingtgen, assistant professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said in a press release.

“We wanted to find out if these induced neural stem cells would home in on cancer cells and whether they could be used to deliver a therapeutic agent. This is the first time this direct reprogramming technology has been used to treat cancer.”

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A new treatment for patients with glioblastoma is critical because the disease is so difficult to treat that the survival rate beyond two years is only about 30 percent. Most patients die within a year and a half of their diagnosis, because even if a surgeon can remove most of the tumor, it’s almost impossible to eliminate the possibility of cancerous remnants spreading deeper in the brain and growing back.

The goal of the personalized stem cell treatment would be to detect and kill the cancerous remnants before they could permeate through the brain and take over.

In the new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, the scientists reprogrammed skin cells called fibroblasts, which produce collagen and connective tissue, to become neural stem cells.

By working with mice, the researchers demonstrated the innate ability of these neural stem cells to travel throughout the brain and seek and destroy any remaining cancer cells. Another plus was that the stem cells could also be engineered to produce a tumor-killing protein.

Amazingly, the researchers were able to increase the survival time of the mice by 160 to 220, percent depending on the type of tumor! Next, the scientists will focus on human stem cells and loading the neural stem cells with more effective cancer-killing drugs.

They also plan to work on improving the lasting power of the stem cells since they need a physical support structure in order to stay in the body long enough to detect and destroy the cancerous remnants.

“Without a structure like that, the stem cells wander off too quickly to do any good,” says Hingtgen.

While there’s still more work that needs to be done before this treatment can be used in humans, the results so far certainly seem promising. Stem cell research may bring us into an exciting new era of cancer treatment.

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