A new U.S. trial has indicated that stem cells may be able to do more than reverse the limits of female fertility or assist transplant recipients -- they may be engineered in order to help cancer patients survive damaging treatments.
Chemotherapy is a common way for western biomedicine to try and tackle cancer. However, the damage that such drugs do to healthy cells is well-known. It acts by killing cancer cells that divide rapidly, but in the process, cells that replicate this behaviour in normal circumstances are also affected -- causing hair loss, immunosuppression and inflammation of the digestive tract.
The new study, published in Science Translational Medicine, experimented with genetically modified stem cells in order to protect one area often affected by such treatment to the detriment of the patient -- bone marrow.
As bone marrow is extremely susceptible to chemotherapy, blood cells that are released in the hollow space within bone become affected. The production of both white and blood cells decrease; resulting in an increased risk of infection, tiredness and sometimes difficulty in breathing.
When you're trying to flight a disease as pernicious as cancer, any relief from these side-effects would be welcome. Sometimes, the reaction can be severe enough that chemotherapy has to be delayed or stopped altogether.
The researchers at Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center attempted to protect the bone marrow by using the genetically-modified stem cells that were harvested directly from an individual's bone marrow. Using a virus, the team then infected these healthy cells with genetic code that would protect them from chemotherapy drugs -- and then placed back in the patient.
Prof Hans-Peter Kiem, leader of the report, said:
"We found that patients were able to tolerate the chemotherapy better, and without negative side effects, after transplantation of the gene-modified stem cells than patients in previous studies who received the same type of chemotherapy without a transplant of gene-modified stem cells."
The three patients who participated in the trial -- suffering from brain cancer glioblastoma -- lived longer than the average survival rate of 12 months for this particular kind of cancer. One patient was still alive 34 months after the treatment.
Cancer Research UK scientist Professor Susan Short said:
"This is a very interesting study and a completely new approach to protecting normal cells during cancer treatment. It needs to be tested in more patients but it may mean that we can use temozolomide [a chemotherapy drug] for more brain tumour patients than we previously thought."
This new approach to cancer treatment could also be used as a model for other situations where the bone marrow is affected by cancer treatment, and if the technique is developed further, more cancer sufferers may be able to tolerate chemotherapy and live longer if the situation is terminal.
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