An exciting breakthrough in cancer research was announced this week. University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers working with mice blood stem cells proved the cells could be engineered to produce cancer killing T-cells that seek out and attack human melanoma cancer.
The researchers believe this approach could be useful in 40 percent of Caucasians, those who are at greater risk of developing this cancer.
The study serves as first proof-of-principle that blood stem cells, which make every cell type found in blood, can be genetically altered in a living organism to create an army of melanoma-fighting T-cells, said Jerome Zack, a professor of medicine and microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics in Life Sciences and the study’s senior author and a scientist with UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“We knew from previous studies that we could generate engineered T-cells, but the question was, 'would they work to fight cancer in a relevant model of human disease, such as melanoma?'” said Zack in a written statement. “We found with this study that they do work in a human model to fight cancer, and it’s pretty exciting.”
For the study, the researchers used a T-cell receptor from a cancer patient cloned to seek out an antigen — a foreign molecule introduced into the body that triggers the production of an antibody by the immune system — which in this case, is produced by melanoma.
Dimitrios N. Vatakis, the study's first author and an assistant researcher in Zack’s lab, says the UCLA team then genetically engineered the human blood stem cells by importing genes for the T-cell receptor into the stem cell nucleus using a virus to deliver the goods.
Once in the targeted cells, the genes integrate with the cell DNA and are permanently incorporated into the blood stem cells, in theory, enabling them to produce melanoma-fighting cells indefinitely and when needed.
“The nice thing about this approach is a few engineered stem cells can turn into an army of T-cells that will respond to the presence of this melanoma antigen,” he said.