At UNC, stem cell treatment for brain tumors shows promise

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Neurosurgeons who treat patients with aggressive brain cancer say there have been few major advances in treating the deadly tumors,  but now researchers at the University of North Carolina may be on the brink of a breakthrough.

In his lab at UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Assistant Professor Shawn Hingtgen works to revolutionize the treatment of brain cancer.

“We think the cure would actually come from a stem cell,” he said.

A glioblastoma is the most aggressive form of brain tumor. Even after the cancer is removed, neurosurgeons say it often returns.

“Almost always the tumors have little tentacles or fingers that escape the surgeon’s eye or escape the radiation so the tumors recur with great frequency,” explained Dr. Matt Ewend, the chair of neurosurgery at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Surgery, chemo, radiation gives patients about a year to survive and really that’s not very good, and really that number has not improved much in almost three decades,” added Hingtgen.

Now, a new treatment shows promise.  It uses stem cells grown from the skin and placed into a bandage-like material created at N.C. State University. That material is then put into the brain following surgery to remove a tumor.

“The stem cells will crawl and find the main tumor but also crawl and find all those little invasive fingers and roots that are so hard to get,” said Hingtgen. “We can also engineer them to carry drugs so now when they track down all those invasive tumors they can now deliver therapeutic agents that will kill those cells.”

Researchers  say animal trials show great success and if the same holds true in humans, this could be the breakthrough brain cancer patients desperately need.

“We can actually triple the survival of the mice with the first generation of the technology so hopefully we’d see effects like that,” said Hingtgen.

Ewend added, “We hope that this will give us a very powerful tool to increase both the quality and the length of their lives give them and their families great hope for the future.”

Researchers say human trials could begin in two to three years.

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