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Promise and Progress - Fat Versus Brain Cancer

Reprogramming Cancer Cells - The Story of Epigenetics
Issue No. 1

Fat Versus Brain Cancer

Date: July 16, 2014

fat cells

Clinical Cancer Research, May 2014

The star-shaped brain cancer cell fluoresces green.

"Human brain cancer cells become less destructive when exposed to engineered human fat stem cells. The star-shaped brain cancer cell fluoresces green, indicating it is expressing a more mature cell lineage marker and therefore less aggressive."

Humans often view fat as an enemy, but in a new brain cancer study, it is looking more like a hero.  Stem cells derived from human body fat were used to attack brain cancer in mice.  The cells, called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), were harvested from human fat tissue and selected for their unexplained proficiency at seeking out cancer and other abnormal or damaged cells.

The MSCs, which are progenitors of connective tissue and blood cells, were modified to secrete an embryonic development protein (BMP4) that has some tumor suppressing functions.  Armed with BMP4, the modified MSCs were injected into the brains of mice with glioblastoma, the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer.  Neurosurgeon and Kimmel Cancer Center brain cancer expert Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, M.D., reported that, in the mouse model, the treatment resulted in increased survival time attributed to decreased tumor growth and spread and fewer aggressive, migratory cancer cells.

Glioblastoma brain cancers are difficult to manage because cancer cells stealthy migrate across the brain and establish new tumors. The hope is that the experimental treatment could one day be used in humans after surgery to seek out and destroy these hidden cancer cells.

Standard treatments for glioblastoma include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery, but even when combined, survival rarely exceeds 18 months.  “Finding a way to get biologic therapy to mop up what other treatments can’t get is a long-sought goal,” says Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa.  He cautions that much more research is needed before human trials could begin.  However, if these findings are confirmed in further studies, he says a glioblastoma patient could have fat tissue removed from one of a number of possible locations in the body a short time before surgery.  The MSCs would be gathered from the fat tissue, manipulated in the lab to secrete BMP4, and deposited into the brain by the surgeon during the operation to remove the brain tumor.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (R01NS070024) and the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund.

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