Health Team

Stem cells may increase survival for brain cancer patients

Posted March 10

Stem cells from a patient’s own skin may help fight the most common and most aggressive forms of brain cancer, according to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers who tested the theory in a lab.

Glioblastoma is a fast-growing, aggressive form of brain cancer. Current strategy to treat the disease is surgical removal of the tumor, followed by radiation and chemotherapy in hopes of killing remaining cancer cells.

“All of those treatments help, but it’s a very difficult disease and often the tumor comes back despite that,” said UNC neurosurgeon Dr. Matt Ewend.

Ewend said another therapy is needed to improve the odds of longer term survival. The answer may have come from a UNC lab that has been treating mice with glioblastomas using their own skin stem cells.

“We worked on this aspect of stem cells where the stem cells can actually chase cancer,” said UNC professor of molecular pharmaceutics Shawn Hingtgen.

Hingtgen said the new method requires a conversion process called direct reprogramming.

“We would take your skin and directly convert it to ‘induced neuro-stem cells’ and explore them as a drug carrier for treating brain cancer,” he said.

In a test dish with pink human tumor cells, scientists can see the green stem cells hunting down the tumor cells.

“So this is using the natural homing capacity of the cell as a carrier. Some people call them a Trojan horse,” said Hingtgen.

In mouse studies, survival rates doubled and tripled. The hope is the new method would do the same in human patients.

“Those cells can see things that I can’t see as a surgeon. They can find cells I can’t find and would give us a chance to get rid of those last few remaining cells that cause the recurrences,” said Ewend.

Researchers are already collecting biopsies from glioblastoma patients to test the concept on human tissue. They hope it will result in human trials and an effective therapy to add to current treatments.

If ultimately successful in human trials, UNC researchers envision the concept being adapted to fight other types of brain cancer, including pediatric cases and “breast-to-brain- cancer" in women.


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