Stem cell research could provide new route to fighting cancer

10 November 2011

Stem Cells1

An innovative stem cell technique developed by scientists in our Oxford Stem Cell Institute lays promising new pathways for a successful cancer treatment.

The team of researchers has been developing stem cells in the laboratory that would help prime the body’s own immune cells to attack cancer. This technical advance opens up the possibility of using stem cells derived from a patient’s skin as a source of key immune cells, called dendritic cells, which can orchestrate an immune response against a tumour. The research provides the first steps in a proof-of-principle study to develop new therapies for cancer patients.

‘The patient would in effect be treated with their own immune cells to prime an attack on their tumour, but those cells would have been derived from a biopsy of their skin,’ explained Dr Paul Fairchild, Co-Director of the Oxford Stem Cell Institute, who led the work. ‘But,’ he warned, ‘much further work will be needed to turn these laboratory experiments into cancer treatments.’

The Oxford researchers used recently established techniques to turn skin cells from a healthy adult back into a stem cell state. These ‘induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells’ are capable of renewing themselves indefinitely and can be coaxed to form any cell type – muscle, nerve, heart tissue, and so on.

Dr Paul Fairchild and his colleague, Dr Kate Silk, prompted the human iPS cells to form dendritic cells using an approach that would be suitable for clinical use (no animal-based material or supplements to aid growth were used).

After providing the dendritic cells with components of a melanoma, the team showed the cells could initiate a full immune response to melanoma markers in cell cultures in the lab.

The study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the Oxford Martin School, and is published in the journal Gene Therapy.

‘We’ve worked out how to generate the particular dendritic cells that are necessary to get a good immune response against tumours,’ says Dr Paul Fairchild.

‘We think it is a significant step forward to produce these cells and show they can generate an immune response under culture conditions in the lab. But it’s important not to underestimate the difficulty in getting to a point where we could consider using the cells as a therapy against cancer in patients.’

The Oxford Stem Cell Institute was established through funding from the Oxford Martin School in 2008. Since then it has grown from a virtual network of scientists to an established institute with over 40 research groups in 17 Oxford University departments.

  • The paper ‘Cross-presentation of tumor antigens by human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived CD141+XCR1+ dendritic cells’ by Kathryn Silk and colleagues is to be published in the journal Gene Therapy on Thursday 10 November.
  • A full press release is published on the Oxford University website.