One of the biggest setbacks to stem cell research is that it can potentially trigger one of the diseases that we hope it will eventually treat one day – cancer. Because stem cells have the ability to rapidly grow and differentiate into specialised cells that can heal damaged organs and tissues, they also have the ability to grow uncontrolled, in a fashion similar to cancerous cells.
For years, this has been a perplexing challenge for researchers as they try to create treatments that don’t carry the threat of uncontrolled growth that leads to cancerous tumours. Now, success may be just around the corner.
However, a new ‘trick’ of sorts that has been developed by researchers may soon change the risk. Scientists believe they can make cells that have been reprogrammed whereby they don’t have any of the genes known to cause cancer. The hope is that we are now closer to developing less risky stem cell treatments that won’t carry the threat of cancer as a frightening side effect.
Changing Stem Cells
In one procedure that was developed by a team of researchers in Japan – they inserted a number of genes into mice and human chromosomes in skin cells. Collectively, these genes reprogrammed the cells, essentially turning back the clock to growth and development. The cells that resulted are known as induced pluripotent stem cells.
These cells were basically turned into embryonic stem cells, which are the ‘master’ cells that can develop into any of the body’s cells and tissues. Since the starting point didn’t involve embryonic stem cells – it utilised adult stem cells – the technique is particularly promising as it avoids the controversy of using original embryonic stem cells obtained from in vitro fertilisation clinics.
The problem was that this method, although promising, created a risk of cancer. Retroviruses could attack and influence the genes that usually keep cancer at bay. On top of that, the genes that were used to reprogram the cells can also trigger tumour growth.
Solving the Dilemma
Now though, two separate research teams have tried a new, different approach to the dilemma. They put the genes into actual chromosomes, which allows them to also be taken out afterwards. Researchers further used a piece of DNA rather than viruses to avoid the other cancer-triggering element of retroviruses.
Once this altered piece of DNA is put into a mouse or human skin cell along with the right genes, it reprogrammed the cells with the same efficiency as the older technique using retroviruses. However, the cancer risk was now addressed, making it a more promising technique of the future in stem cells. Once the reprogramming bit is completed, these cancer-causing genes can be removed.
Successful Stem Cell Therapies
Other researchers today are experimenting with various drugs to try to eradicate the cancer risk. It’s clearly an important challenge that needs to be conquered if stem cell therapies are to become a commercial reality. It’s ironic that the very treatment itself can later trigger the disease it is created to solve, but with new research, we can hopefully create safe stem cell therapies that help the millions of people around the world who are suffering from devastating diseases.