An experimental new way to treat one of the most common and aggressive forms of brain cancer has shown promise in laboratory tests. 

In a study performed by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, stem cells made from human skin cells were shown to hunt down and destroy glioblastoma.

The technique, dubbed “skin flipping”, won a Nobel Prize in 2012 and involves the harvesting of fibroblasts – skin cells that produce collagen and connective tissue – from a patient and morphing them into neural stem cells. These cells naturally have thew ability to gather around cancer cells in the brain, however, they do not possess the right tools to destroy cancer cells themselves.

In order to arm these cells, the team engineered them to carry a protein for them to release once they arrive at a cancer cell. This protein activates a substance given to the patient called a prodrug which then turns into an effective therapeutic agent.

As the prodrug is only activated in the presence of cancer cells, the therapeutic effect is highly focused, increasing the treatment’s efficacy and reducing unwanted side effects.

The team had experimented with their technique last year but instead converted mouse skin cells into stem cells to treat human brain cancer. The team found their technique to increase the survival time of the mice by 160 to 220%, dependent on the specific type of tumour.

One of the most appealing factors of the team’s technique is its speed to create the converted stem cells, – a far quicker method than existing technology. In glioblastoma, quick treatment is essential due to its low median survival of fewer than 18 months.

“Speed is essential,” said Shawn Hingtgen, a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Care Center and study lead. “It used to take weeks to convert human skin cells to stem cells. But brain cancer patients don’t have weeks and months to wait for us to generate these therapies. The new process we developed to create these stem cells is fast enough and simple enough to be used to treat a patient.”

Currently, the standard of care for glioblastoma is a combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy – a regimen which has remained largely the same over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, the cancer returns in almost every patient and, because of its nature, can be extremely difficult to both see and treat.

Hingtgen is hopeful of his team’s new technique revolutionising glioblastoma care and giving patients a genuinely effective treatment option: “We desperately need something better. We’re one to two years away from clinical trials, but for the first time, we showed that our strategy for treating glioblastoma works with human stem cells and human cancers.

“This is a big step toward a real treatment – and making a real difference.”