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Feb 25, 2016 06:31 AM EST

Researchers develop technique to use skin cells to kill cancer

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Researchers at the University of North Carolina have found a way to turn skin cells into cancer-hunting stem cells that can find and kill remnant brain tumor cells, UPI reports.

Glioblastomas, a form of brain cancer, are particularly aggressive, fast growing tumors that form astrocytes. Astrocytes are cells that make up the supportive tissue of the brain.

Around 70 percent of patients with glioblastoma do not survive past two years.

"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."

 The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

For the study, the researchers reprogrammed skin cells called fibroblasts to become neural stem cells and produce a tumor-killing protein. The cells were inserted into the mice and held in place using a physical matrix.

The cells, which in skin produce collagen and connective tissue, hunted and killed cancer cells.

Depending on the type and specific location of the tumor, the researchers reported they increased the survival of mice by 160 to 220 percent.

"Our work represents the newest evolution of the stem-cell technology that won the Nobel Prize in 2012," Hingtgen said, according to Medical Xpress.

"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. This is the first time this direct reprogramming technology has been used to treat cancer."

Hingtgen's team is also currently improving the staying power of stem cells within the surgical cavity.

"Without a structure like that, the stem cells wander off too quickly to do any good," said Hingtgen, who reported this result in a separate journal called Biomaterials.

The researchers now hope to focus on human stem cells and test more effective anti-cancer drugs that can be combined with the reprogrammed neural stem cells.

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