Scientists say they have made a “groundbreaking discovery” in the field of cancer treatment: a way to transform skin cells into stem cells that can target and destroy brain cancer.

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Researchers transformed fibroblasts – cells in connective tissue that produce collagen – into cancer-killing neural stem cells.

In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill reveal how the transformed skin cells were able to hunt down and kill brain tumors called glioblastomas.

Glioblastomas belong to a class of brain tumors known as gliomas. They are the most common and deadliest form of malignant primary brain tumors in adults, with an estimated 12,120 new cases expected to be diagnosed in the US this year.

At present, the prognosis for a patient with glioblastoma is poor; only around 30% of patients with the condition live beyond 2 years from diagnosis, primarily because the tumors are so hard to remove.

Study leader Shawn Hingtgen, PhD, of the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at UNC, and colleagues note that even if a surgeon is able to remove most of the glioblastoma, there are almost always remnants of the cancer left in the brain, known as tendrils.

Tendrils are finger-like, cancerous tentacles that become deeply embedded in the brain, and they can quickly form a new glioblastoma.

With this in mind, the researchers set out to identify a personalized form of treatment for glioblastoma that is able to target and kill tendrils, eliminating the cancer once and for all.

“Patients desperately need a better standard of care,” notes Hingtgen.

Hingtgen and colleagues reprogrammed fibroblasts – collagen-producing cells in connective tissue – to turn into neural stem cells.

On testing the neural stem cells in mice with glioblastoma, the researchers found the cells had an “innate ability” to move through the brain and hunt down and destroy the cancerous tendrils.

Furthermore, the researchers found they could engineer the neural stem cells to generate a protein called TRAIL that can kill tumors, making the cancer-fighting ability of the stem cells even stronger.

Overall, the researchers were able to increase the survival of the mice by 160-220% with the neural stem cells, depending on the type of tumor the rodents had.

Commenting on their results, the authors say:

Together, these data support the potential of iNSCs [induced neural stem cells] to serve as highly effective drug-delivery vehicles for treatment of solid and invasive brain tumors.”

The team says the findings build on a previous discovery that won a Nobel Prize in 2012, in which researchers found a way to transform skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells.

“Our work represents the newest evolution of the stem-cell technology that won the Nobel Prize in 2012,” says Hingtgen. “We wanted to find out if these induced neural stem cells would home in on cancer cells and whether they could be used to deliver a therapeutic agent. This is the first time this direct reprogramming technology has been used to treat cancer.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study in which researchers reveal how breaching the blood-brain barrier could boost the effect of chemotherapy for patients with glioblastoma.