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The concept may sound crazy at first. Killing brain cancer cells with skin cells. How could that possibly work? Well, pharmacy researchers at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill have successfully been able to turn skin cells into, essentially, brain cancer cell predators–cells that search and destroy brain tumors.

The concept of reprogramming skin cells is not new. This research actually builds on Nobel Prize-winning technology that originally allowed researchers to manipulate skin cells and actually turn them into embryonic-stem cells. Further development upon this research and technology, led by lead researcher, Dr. Shawn Hingtgen, an assistant professor in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, was aimed towards personalizing this technique by using the patient’s own skin cells. The main objective was that those skin cells would attack and kill off the tumor.

Image Source: Ed Reschke

In his research, Hingtgen used specific skin cells called fibroblasts (cells that produce collagen and connective tissue in the skin) and manipulated them to become induced neural stem cells to attack specific brain tumors called Glioblastoma.

Hingtgen’s team’s research focused on work with mice. Their work on this method proved to be very successful in mice, with drastically increased survival rates of approximately 160-220%. Through their trials, they were able to conclude three things:

  1. Neural stem cells derived from the fibroblasts (the skin cells), “have an innate ability to move throughout the brain and home in on and kill any remaining cancer cells.” This meant that the manipulated skin cells naturally have the ability to find and destroy brain cancer cells.
  2. The derived neural stem cells could be used to produce a protein with tumor-killing properties.
  3. The induced neural stem cells require a suitable environment to stay in the area-of-interest long enough to do any good.

These early results look promising, and given the specific ailment it is meant to treat (brain tumors), this research holds lot of hope for brain cancer patients.

With the main points identified above, the next steps would include further research into each one of the three primary research findings. It would be particularly useful to delve further into the tumor-killing protein isolated from the derived neural stem cells. Hingtgen and his team are currently working on improving the longevity of these stem cells to possibly improve efficacy and efficiency.

With cancer and stem cell research being such large topics in health research, this breakthrough can serve as major inspiration for future research. If proven successful, this technique could be used to propel research into similar methods to kill other types of cancer cells, perhaps using other types of stem cells.

Feature Image Source: Paul Stainthorp

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