From skin cells to stem cells – new route to tackle brain cancer

Researchers at the University of North Carolina are converting skin cells into stem cells and loading them with anti-cancer drugs to use in the fight against brain tumors. Nathan Frandino reports.

With intense concentration, student researchers at the University of North Carolina dissect mice brains.

One slice at a time, students preserve the specimen under the watchful eye of Dr. Shawn Hingtgen, assistant professor at UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

He’s overseeing cutting edge stem cell research that’s taking aim at the brain cancer glioblastoma.

Dr. Shawn Hingtgen:  “The current life expectancy for GBM patients is only around 12 to 15 months and that number sadly hasn’t really improved in almost the last 30 years, so we really think there needs to be and there must be a better way to treat this disease.”

Hingtgen’s team is using an intriguing method – converting skin cells into stem cells.

Dr. Shawn Hingtgen: “So we took mouse skin and converted it into mouse stem cells – they’re call induced neural stem cells.”

The researchers load the stem cells with anti-cancer drugs and grow them on a paper-like scaffolding structure that mimics matrices of the brain.

The structure — created at North Carolina State University — allows researchers to implant the cells in cavities where tumors have grown.

Postdoc researcher Dr. Julio Rodriguez-Bago: “The scaffolds help the cells to survive for a longer period of time inside the patient. This, I believe, is a very new treatment, because it gets to join the tissue, regenerating cells, for the treatment of cancer.”

Those stem cells then home in on the cancerous cells.

Early results are promising.

Assistant Professor at UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy: “In our initial testing, we were able to extend the survival of mice with human brain tumors from 25 days to almost 65 days. So, we really think this approach is feasible. It checks off all the marks that we need. It appears to be safe, the cells can home to cancer, and most importantly we can start to eradicate that disease. So, we think it’s opening the door or creating a path towards where we can truly now create a clinically relevant personalized neural stem cell therapy to treat brain cancer.”

Hingtgen says clinical trials are at least two years away, but he’s optimistic they will make a major contribution to the fight against cancer.


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