New technique could offer hope for rare brain cancer

Skin cells turned into cancer-killing warriors.

Glioblastoma is a rare but deadly form of brain cancer, with only 30 percent of those with the disease able to survive, even after surgery to remove the tumors it causes.  The reason for the low survival rate is the tumor produces tendrils that spread across the brain and it is very difficult for surgeons to remove them all.

But a new technique, pioneered by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and reported by UPI, is offering new hope for treatment by turning skin cells into stem cells that seek out the cancer’s tendrils and kill them.

Dr. Shawn Hingtgen, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, in a press release, said the research team wanted to know if the induction of these stem cells would hone in on the cancer cells, and, if so, could they be used to deliver a therapeutic agent.  Hingten added this was the first time this type of direct programming technology had been used as a treatment for cancer.

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, glioblastomas form astrocytes, cells that are contained in the brain’s supportive tissue, and are connected to a very large number of blood vessels.  This fact, along with the aggressive nature of the cancer, makes it problematic for surgeons trying to remove the tumors.

The researchers developed a new technique to turn skin cells, called fibroblasts, into neural stem cells that produce a protein known to kill tumors.  These cells, that in skin produce collagen and connective tissues, seek out cancer cells and destroy them.  The team inserted the cells into laboratory mice, and using a matrix to hold them in place, left them there long enough to find and destroy the cancerous cells in the mice.  The results show an increased survival rate, ranging from 160  to 220 percent, depending on the location of the original tumor.

So far the technique has only been tested on laboratory mice, but researchers hope to focus on using human stem cells, along with a combination of anti-cancer drugs, to develop a new treatment to offer hope to those stricken with the disease.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

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