Stem Cells As A Diagnostic Tool In Cancer Treatment
Stem cells don’t just treat problems of the body – they can predict them too. Researchers at Stanford University have developed a stem cell technique to help patients avoid severe reactions to a common cancer treatment drug.
As the mother cells of the body, our stem cells say a lot about us.
They contain all the information essential to promote life as well as harness the ability to give rise to any type of cell, tissue, and organ in the body.
In a recent paper in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers at Stanford University explain how they’ve made use of this powerful source of genetic information by using stem cells to find out how patients will react to a certain drug.
The chemotherapy drug doxorubicin is highly effective in many patients for fighting several types of cancer, including childhood leukaemia and breast cancer. But in around 8 percent of cases, the drug can have severe side effects, for example, causing cardiotoxicity — where heart muscles are damaged – which can lead to heart failure.
With no current way of knowing which patients will develop the reaction, the method used by Stanford researchers could prevent patients developing further complications and even give rise to a DNA test for the likelihood of cardiotoxicity.
This would be a huge step forward in cancer treatment and also the field of preventive medicine.
How Stem Cells Can Improve Cancer Treatment
On the basis of studies demonstrating that skin cells could be coaxed into desired cell types, researchers collected skin cells from breast cancer patients who’d already been treated with the drug — some suffering from cardiotoxicity — in order to find out what induces a reaction on a genetic level.
The researchers then regressed the skin cells to their precursor state — pluripotent stem cells which have the ability to differentiate into any cell type. As this state was artificially induced, these cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells).
Having reversed the biological process of stem cell to skin cell, they then coaxed the cells into becoming a different kind of cell: heart muscle cells. This allowed the researchers to essentially test the reaction of a patient’s heart cells to doxorubicin from outside of the body.
The researchers measured the reactions and discovered the likely genetic reasons for the differences in reaction to the drug.
What It Means For Cancer Research
“Our results showed that heart cells from patients who have cardiotoxicity were significantly more sensitive to doxorubicin-induced toxicity. They had more structural damage, reduced contraction, DNA damage and died more easily.” —Paul Burridge
By using the approach to identify the genetic differences behind the varying responses to the drug, the researchers found that mitochondrial dysfunction may be the underlying reason for patients experiencing a toxic side effect.
The Stanford study offers many benefits for improving the outcome of cancer treatment, and presents what the researchers believe to be a strong grounding for developing a DNA test for identifying patients who are likely to develop cardiotoxicity from doxorubicin.
Prof Paul Burridge, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at Northwestern University, emphasises the significance of the study in treating cancer patients:
“This patient could then be given an alternative chemotherapy drug or a lower dose. In contrast, patients who are likely to be resistant to doxorubicin-induced cardiotoxicity might be able to be given a higher dose and have a better chance of success with their chemotherapy.”
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