Previously, stem cells taken from bone marrow were considered as candidates for this role but research now suggests that fat, or 'adipose', tissue may be an easier, cheaper but equally effective source.
Like bone marrow stem cells, human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) in fat naturally 'migrate' towards glioma (a type of brain cancer) cells in vitro, a capability which may lead them to be used as cell guides or bearers - leading treatments to hard-to-reach targets.
'The biggest challenge in brain cancer is the migration of cancer cells', said study leader Professor Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, USA. 'Even when we remove the tumour, some of the cells have already slipped away and are causing damage somewhere else'.
'Building off our findings, we may be able to find a way to arm a patient's own healthy cells with the treatment needed to chase down those cancer cells and destroy them', he added.
Current standard treatment for patients with glioblastoma is chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, yet even a combination of these treatments is not enough to offer patients more than 18 months survival after diagnosis.
In the study, scientists compared the ability of adipose and bone marrow stem cells to migrate towards chemicals secreted by glioma. There were no significant differences in the abilities of the two types of cell to do so. The researchers conclude that adipose hMSCs would be preferable in any eventual clinical technique because they are much easier and less painful to harvest than their bone marrow equivalents.
'Essentially, these MSCs are like a "smart" device that can track cancer cells', explained Professor Quinones-Hinojosa, whose research is published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The mechanisms behind this behaviour are currently unknown, however, although studies like this one suggest that MSCs have a natural affinity for damaged cells.
Human trials using MSCs as treatment-delivery tools would still be years away, Professor Quinones-Hinojosa said, although more lab-based research in the area is underway.