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Researchers find way to use skin cells to kill cancer

Researchers significantly extended the lives of mice using the technique to treat a difficult form of brain cancer.

By
Stephen Feller
Reprogrammed stem cells that hunt and kill glioblastoma cells may offer a new and more effective treatment option for a disease that has not had any new treatment in more than 30 years. Photo by Suttha Burawonk/Shutterstock
Reprogrammed stem cells that hunt and kill glioblastoma cells may offer a new and more effective treatment option for a disease that has not had any new treatment in more than 30 years. Photo by Suttha Burawonk/Shutterstock

CHAPEL HILL, N.C., Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Just 30 percent of patients with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, survive past two years because even if a surgeon removes the tumor, it is nearly impossible to get the invasive tendrils that spread into the brain and allow the tumor to grow back.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina have pioneered a technique of turning skin cells into cancer-hunting stem cells that, in mice, found and killed remnant brain tumor cells.

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Glioblastomas are aggressive, fast-growing tumors that form astrocytes, cells that make up the supportive tissue of the brain. Astrocytes reproduce quickly, and are supported by a large network of blood vessels, which is why the relatively rare cancer can be so difficult to treat, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.

"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," Dr. Shawn Hingtgen, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, said in a press release. "This is the first time this direct reprogramming technology has been used to treat cancer."

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For the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers reprogrammed skin cells called fibroblasts to become neural stem cells and produce a tumor-killing protein. The cells, which in skin produce collagen and connective tissue, hunt and kill cancer cells.

The cells are inserted into the mice and held in place using a physical matrix in order to keep them there long enough to seek cancerous cells in the area. Depending on the type and specific location of the tumor, the researchers report they increased the survival of mice by 160 to 220 percent.

Future research will focus on using human stem cells and testing more effective anti-cancer drugs that can be paired with the reprogrammed neural stem cells.

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