Scientists have discovered a new stem cell-based cancer treatment that can target and kill breast cancer cells that have spread in mice.

The researchers at the University of California Irvine (UCI) also hope that the new treatment may prevent some of the toxic side-effects of chemotherapy by providing a more localised therapy.

The new treatment works by using stem cells from human bone marrow which have been genetically engineered with a piece of “code” that enables the cells to detect cancerous tissue (which is stiffer than normal tissue), lock onto it and then release a chemotherapy drug.

Associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UCI, Weian Zhao says they have effectively and safely employed the stem cell technology in mice to treat metastatic breast cancer that had spread to the lungs.

The study, published in Science Translational Medicine, also outlines how the approach may provide an alternative to chemotherapy, which can result in unpleasant side effects because as well as killing cancer cells, chemotherapy also harms healthy cells.

“Our new type of treatment only targets metastatic tissue, which enables us to avoid some of conventional chemotherapy’s unwanted side effects,” Dr Zhao says.  

He adds, “This is a new paradigm for cancer therapy. We are going in a direction that few have explored before, and we hope to offer an alternative and potentially more effective cancer treatment.”

The researchers say this study focused on breast cancer which had spread to the lungs, but the approach could be used to treat other forms of the disease as well. 

“This technology will be applicable to other metastases as well, because many solid tumours have the hallmark of being stiffer than normal tissue. This is why our system is innovative and powerful, as we don’t have to spend the time to identify and develop a new genetic or protein marker for every kind of cancer.”

Dr Zhao says this first study was carried out in mice, but that he and his team hope to transition to human studies in the near future.

7 August 2017

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