Pharmacy researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have done something its men’s basketball team will never be accused of doing, studying. With all that book learning the researchers have achieved a scientific first; turning skin cells into cancer-hunting stem cells that home in on brain tumors known as glioblastoma with murderous intent.
Skin cells working off Nobel-winning advances from 2007
For the first time in over three decades, a new treatment may become available for sufferers of brain cancer with tumors diagnosed as glioblastoma. While it may be difficult to imagine a good type of brain cancer, there are less pernicious tumors than glioblastomas. Less than 30% of patients diagnosed see a life two-years down the road as surgery has little effect on the tendrils that remain following the removal of the tumor. The remaining tendrils simply build a new house in your brain.
The roughly 30% that survive beyond the aforementioned two-year window invariable die before the three year mark has passed. However, there is hope that this may change. Using Nobel-winning medicine, the pharmacy researchers were able to “reprogram” the patients’ (mice) skin cells to roam the brain seeking out remaining cancer cells following the removal of the tumor.
“Patients desperately need a better standard of care,” said Shawn Hingtgen, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Care Center, who led the study.
Survival rate in mice drastically increased
The skin cells, or fibroblasts, were induced into a life as neural stem cells and let loose in the brain of the subjects (it’s just nicer to write than acknowledging that they gave mice brain cancer) where the hunted cancer cells with aplomb without damaging non-cancerous cells. While the results varied based on tumor type, the team increased the survival time in mice by 160 to 220 percent. The researchers also wrote that they enjoyed success engineering the skin cells cum “cancer killers” into producers of a protein that also kills tumors.
“Our work represents the newest evolution of the stem-cell technology that won the Nobel Prize in 2012,” Hingtgen said. “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.”
The team is now planning to double down on its findings by concentrating on human stem cells while at the same looking at the potential for its breakthrough with skin cells working in conjunction with promising anti-cancer medications.
Hingtgen’s team is a busy unit with members also working to improve the long-term performance of stem cells in the surgical cavity. The team is looking to build a figurative backbone in order to support, organize and rally the cancer-killing cells. Stem cells need direction and by providing a physical matrix the team hopes to keep the stem cells interested in their fight against the remaining cancerous tendrils. Similar to a parent justifying the prescribing of Adderall to a child that simply daydreams.
“Without a structure like that, the stem cells wander off too quickly to do any good,” said Hingtgen, in a separate study published in the journal Biomaterials.