Skin cells programmed to hunt down cancer

On 24th February, a research group, led by Dr Shawn Hingten at the University of North Carolina, announced they had developed a method of using a patient’s own skin cells in order to hunt down and target cancer cells in the brain. This novel method transforms skin cells into brain stem cells, with the ability to become any of the cell types found in the brain, as well as to move freely through the brain tissue. These are being used in the development of a treatment for glioblastoma, the most common type of primary brain tumour.

Each year, a further 14,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma, representing 15% of all brain tumours. Unfortunately the survival rate for this particular type of cancer is very low, with two year survival being seen in only 30% of cases. This is due to difficulties in treating the cancer. Brain tumours are challenging to remove surgically, as it is important not to remove any healthy tissue. This means that, during removal, the invasive cancerous tendrils are left behind, thus allowing the proliferation and re-establishment of the cancer, much like when you leave plant roots in the soil and the plant re-grows.

This research provides the first new and more effective treatment of glioblastoma in over 30 years. It builds on from the 2003 Nobel Prize winning-technology, where skin cells were manipulated to transform into embryonic-like stem cells. Dr Hingten and his team have managed to reprogram fibroblasts, a particular type of skin cell, to become neural stem cells that can be used as drug delivery vehicles. These modified cells can move through the brain, recognise cancer, and secrete tumour toxic proteins or drugs, in order to destroy the tumour cells.

The process has currently only been carried out fully using mouse models. However the team are currently working to improve the long term viability of the neural stem cells within the surgical cavity. In order for them to remain in the correct place for long enough to be able to recognise the tumour cells they need a protein matrix to physically organise the cells. This is currently being done using an Food and Drug Administration approved fibrin sealant commonly used as surgical glue. The use of this sealant tripled the retention of the stem cells in the surgical cavity, providing them with the sticking power they needed to carry out their function and showing a promising result for the future of this therapy.

The next step in the development of this ground-breaking treatment is to focus on using human cells, as well as testing the delivery capacity of the cells for more effective anti-cancer drugs. Should they be successful in both these endeavours, the therapy will then be taken to clinical trials before it can be implemented as a standardised treatment. This is the first time direct reprogramming technology has been used to create a personalised treatment for cancer, and could mark the start of a whole new era of more effective cancer treatment.


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May 2022
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