Scientists at the University of California – Irvine have developed a stem cell therapy to target and kill cancer cells without some of the toxic effects typically associated with chemotherapy.
Stem Cell Therapy for Cancer
The group in Irvine programmed stem cells obtained from the human bone marrow to identify cancer cells based on their unique properties. The stem cells are genetically engineered and contain a code to differentiate between healthy and cancerous tissue. These stem cells, therefore, have the ability to selectively target cancerous tissue. The stem cells identify the cancer cells based on tissue rigidity. Breast cancer cells are known to be stiffer compared to healthy tissue. In fact, the stiffness of the extracellular breast matrix is thought to affect the progression of tumors and the patient’s clinical outcome. At UC – Irvine, Associate Professor Weian Zhao and his colleagues have used this unique property of cancerous tissue to identify and target it.
Study Results for Cancer Stem Cell Therapy
The results of the study, published in Science Translational Medicine, reveal that this method is both safe and effective in treating metastatic breast cancer in mice. The stem cells were first injected into the mice and allowed to find and settle on the tumor cells which had metastasized (spread) to the lung. After the stem cells secreted enzymes at the site of the cancerous tissue, the investigators treated the mice with an inactive form of the chemotherapeutic drug 5-flurocytosine. The enzymes produced by the stem cells at the tumor site were able to trigger the drug into action.
Stem Cell Treatment for Metastatic Tumors
Zhao and his team have focused their attention on the treatment of metastatic tumors, cancers where the disease has spread to distant parts of the body, away from the primarily affected tissue. Secondary or metastatic cancers account for the overwhelming majority (about 90 percent) of cancer-related deaths.
Alternative Therapy for Cancer Without Side Effects
The hope is to develop an alternative effective therapy for cancer while preventing some of the most debilitating side effects of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy, while killing cancer cells, also harms healthy tissue, leading to some of its most deadly side effects. Although the current research has been focused on the spread of breast cancer to the lung, the method is applicable to all types of metastatic tumors. With the knowledge that all solid tumors are stiffer than healthy tissue, the new stem cell treatment offers a powerful and innovative method to target cancer. The team is expanding its research to other types of cancers, including colon cancer, and other types of cells that can sense cancer tissue. In the future, the technology may be used to develop stem cell treatments for diabetes, fibrosis, and other diseases that result in stiffening of tissue.