A mere 30 percent of people suffering from glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer, live beyond two years, as even if surgery removes most of the tumor, it would be virtually impossible to get hold of the invasive tendrils spreading into the brain and allowing tumor to regrow.
Now in a groundbreaking discovery, researchers from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill used skin cells as cancer-seeking stem cells that managed to find and destroy remaining brain tumor in mice.
The research builds upon the newest version of the Nobel Prize-winning stem-cell technology a few years ago.
"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,” says lead author and UNC assistant professor Dr. Shawn Hingtgen, adding that they are the first to use the technology – which converts skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells – for cancer therapy.
The team reprogrammed skin cell called fibroblasts, which create collagen and connective tissue, in order to turn into neural stem cells, zeroing in on and killing remaining cancer cells. The stem cells could also be engineered to give off a tumor-annihilating protein.
In the mice study, the researchers inserted the cells into the mouse subjects and kept them in place through a physical matrix that supports them long enough for their cancer-scouring activity. Without such structure, the stem cells wander off too rapidly.
The team increased the mice’s survival time between 160 and 220 percent but the results vary from one tumor type to another.
Stem cells within glioblastomas as well as other cancers are stubbornly resistant to all forms of treatment, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Once they ward off the threat of a treatment, they are quick to encourage new cancer cell growth – a behavior that makes the disease highly difficult to treat.
Future studies will concentrate on exploring human stem cells as well as experimenting with promising anti-cancer medications that could be combined with the stem cells.
The findings were reported in the journal Nature Communications.
In a separate study published in the journal Biomaterials, Hingtgen’s team added the reprogrammed stem cells to a fibrin sealant typically used as surgical glue. The physical matrix from the process tripled the stem cells’ retention in the surgical cavity and offered stronger support for the technique.