A recent innovation of using skin cells may prove effective in fighting brain cancer, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By utilizing technology that won a Nobel prize in 2007, pharmacy researchers have been able to turn certain types of skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells. When changed, the cells are able to effectively hunt down and destroy brain tumor cells called glioblastoma.
Reprogramming skin cells
The new technique could prove to be groundbreaking for patients suffering from brain cancer. Current treatment methods only give those suffering from glioblastoma a 30% chance of living beyond two years. This is due to the tumors’ complexity; while surgery can be effective in removing as much of the tumor as possible, it is not good at removing the tendrils that sprout from them. These tendrils burrow deeper into the brain and cause remnants of the tumor to grow back. Most patients only survive a year and a half after receiving a diagnosis.
So in order to effectively treat this form of cancer, researchers went to work on finding ways to eliminate these tendrils. Dr. Shawn Hingtgen and his team went to work with this goal in mind. By reprogramming a certain type of skin cell called a fibroblast, he and his team were able to create induced neural stem cells. These stem cells are able to more easily move through the brain and destroy the tendrils that surgery cannot remove.
The results of the research have been promising thus far. Depending on the type of tumor, researchers were able to increase survival rates in mice by 160-220 percent.
More work ahead
The next step for researchers is to start working with human stem cells. Hingtgen and his team hope to be able to load different anti-cancer drugs into them so that their potency will be increased. “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,” he said.
There are still some kinks that need to be worked out before the stem cells can effectively work in a human model. For example, after being inserted into the body, the stem cells have a tendency to become disorganized and not work effectively.
Hingtgen and his team are working on ways of binding them to a physical matrix so that they will have more longevity and work more efficiently. “Without a structure like that, the stem cells wander off too quickly to do any good,” said Hingtgen.
More information on the research can be found here.