Dr. Shinya Yamanaka won a Nobel Prize for his work with induced pluripotent stem cells. Based on that singular research, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pharmacy scientists have transformed ordinary skin cells into cancer-hunting stem cells that are able to destroy glioblastoma. The UNC team say their experimental medical research may someday provide a more effective treatment for this type of brain tumor.

Each of us is born with stem cells, which have the potential to develop into many different cell types, the National Institutes of Health explains. These unique cells exist in every part of the body and help to repair damage by replenishing other cells. Yet, because each of us has just a limited number of these cells, our ability to heal ourselves gradually dwindles over time until the day when our stem-cell supply runs dry. Finding a way to produce these regenerative stem cells has been a holy grail for many scientists.

Yamanaka's breakthrough came when he and his colleagues learned that, by increasing the expression of just four genes, skin, blood, or other mature cells could be turned into stem cells. This process, which they referred to as "cellular reprogramming," created induced pluripotent stem cells fully capable of transforming into any cell type whatsoever.

Using cellular reprogramming, Dr. Shawn Hingtgen, an assistant professor and lead author of the current study, created a technique that may someday form the basis of a personalized medical treatment for people suffering from glioblastoma.

The Target

Each year, 14,000 patients are diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most common brain cancer, yet fewer than 10 percent of patients will live beyond five years, according to the National Institutes of Health. The reason these tumors are so difficult to treat is that even when a surgeon removes most of the diseased growth, any remaining cancerous tendrils spread deeper into the brain.

To destroy the cancerous tendrils — and kill the glioblastoma — Hingtgen and his team began with a patient's own skin cells. Specifically, they reprogrammed fibroblasts, which produce collagen and connective tissue, to become induced neural stem cells in mice. From here, they observed how these induced stem cells moved throughout the brain, migrated to the tumor, and there killed the cancer cells. Next, to add even more power, Hingtgen and his team engineered the induced neural stem cells to produce an additional tumor-killing protein.

Their results provide the first evidence that cellular reprogramming might be used to treat cancer, the scientists say. Going forward, new research will build on these results and focus on inducing neural stem cells in humans to deliver a cancer-destroying agent where needed.

Source: Bago JR, Alfonso-Pecchio A, Okolie O, et al. Therapeutically engineered induced neural stem cells are tumour-homing and inhibit progression of glioblastoma. Nature Communications. 2016.