Medical breakthrough for cancer patients

Patients could soon be transfused with blood made from their own skin in a breakthrough that could revolutionise cancer treatments and solve the blood donor shortage. Scientists have shown that ordinary skin cells can effectively be converted into adult blood cells in the laboratory.


They believe that a two inch square patch of skin – taken from anywhere on the body – could be enough to make enough blood for a full transfusion.

What is more because the blood is made from the patient’s own cells, there is no danger of the body rejecting it.

The Canadian team say that the process has been so successful that they could try the treatment in patient within two years.

“There is incredible need here,” said Dr Mick Bhatia, who headed the team at McMaster University in Ontario.

“For patients with disease this will be an alternative source of blood that will not be rejected.

“People will effectively become their own donors. We are very excited and very enthusiastic about it.

“There is a lot of work to be done but I would be disappointed if we were not trying it on patients by 2012.”

The research, published in Nature, is part of ongoing attempts across the world to revert adult cells back to their original stem cell form.

Stem cells are “master cells” which can be manipulated in a laboratory to become any other cell in the body.

The McMaster team have managed to misses out the “in-between” stage of turning the cells back to stem cells and then converting to blood cells.

Instead the process – which uses various proteins to re-programme the cells and takes a month – converts skin cells straight to blood.

Leukaemia patients are likely to be the first to receive transfusions of perfectly matched blood generated from their own skin.

In future, laboratory manufactured blood could help to plug the gap caused by donor shortages, the scientists believe.

It could be used in surgery, to treat patients with anaemia and other blood conditions, and to prevent cancer therapy having to be stopped prematurely because of depletion the body’s stock of blood cells.

The technique also holds out the promise of making other kinds of cell, including neurons with the potential to treat brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Dr Bhatia, director of the Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute at McMaster University, said: “We don’t envision many obstacles. Us being able to take skin cells and convert them into healthy blood, specifically adult blood, would provide a great substitute product to hopefully out-compete those leukaemic cells.”

The breakthrough arose from observations made several years ago during early work on so-called induced pluripotent stem cells.

These are ordinary cells that have been genetically tweaked to make them revert to an embryonic state.

They then adopt the characteristics and properties of embryonic stem cells – stem cells extracted from early human embryos.

Most importantly, they are “pluripotent”, having the potential ability to grow into many different kinds of cell.

During the process, a small number of skin cells seemed to jump spontaneously to the stage of being immature blood cells.

Building on these studies, Dr Bhatia’s team found a genetic and chemical recipe that made it possible to generate a full range of adult blood cell progenitors from skin cells called fibroblasts.

The “lineages” included different kinds of white blood cell, red cells, and the cells that generate blood clotting platelets.

The technique involves inserting a specific transcription factor – a protein that interacts with DNA to activate genes – and applying other treatment in the form of signalling molecules called cytokines.

Skin cells from both young and old people were used in the research to prove that age of donor made no difference to the process.

A number of the cells were successfully grafted into mice. Dr Bhatia said: “We have shown this works using human skin. We know how it works and believe we can even improve on the process. We’ll now go on to work on developing other types of human cell types from skin, as we already have encouraging evidence.”

He said the new technique was quicker than its predecessors and made “the right types of blood cells”.

Next the scientists plan to assess what kind of production capacity might be possible with the cells, and whether they can successfully be stored in deep freeze.

Professor John Hunt, a leading stem cell scientist from the University of Liverpool, said: “I think it’s fantastic research, but it’s not yet in the clinic and we don’t know if these red blood cells are going to carry oxygen. The quantum leap for us all is going to be to get these kind of bench experiments into the patient.

“It might be two years or 10 years, but it’s right to be optimistic because we’re expecting breakthroughs. However it’s still too early to say ‘this is it’.

“This opens a lot of doors, and if we could produce red blood cells we’d be solving a big clinical need.”

Via Telegraph