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Skin stem cells have potential to fight cancer

14 November 2011

By Rosemary Paxman

Appeared in BioNews 633

A new technique to transform skin cells into immune cells has been used in the laboratory to hunt for and attack cancer, report scientists after a proof-of-principle study.

'The patient would in effect be treated with their own immune cells to prime an attack on their tumour', explained Dr. Paul Fairchild of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University, who led the work.

Presently this has only been accomplished in a laboratory, but researchers are encouraged by the latest results, published in Gene Therapy, and believe a treatment is possible in the future.

Stem cells derived from a patient's skin were transformed into key immune cells, called dendritic cells, using advanced stem cell technologies. The dendritic cells were then primed to trigger an attack on melanomas using a marker, Melan A, which is unique to the cancer. Laboratory experiments demonstrated these dendritic cells were able to activate both immune cells which produce antibodies and those which kill other cells.

The use of this technique as a treatment for cancer is a long way off, with the cost and a safe method of producing stem cells both presenting significant barriers. However Dr Fairchild eventually sees the technique working alongside, instead of replacing, other therapies.

'It is a long and arduous process compared with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It's extremely labour intensive', he said.

'By showing that normal body cells can be reprogrammed to become a sub-type of dendritic cells with superior activity, this research builds on previous work by Cancer Research UK scientists using blood stem cells as starting material', explained Cancer Research UK immunology expert, Dr Caetano Reis e Sousa. 'The next challenge is to confirm that these laboratory-generated cells will be suitable for immunotherapy-based cancer treatments used in the clinic'.

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