Most cancer treatments (such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy) seek to kill cancer cells. But what if we could cure them? Some researchers try to achieve this through so-called differentiation therapy.
Stem cells are cells whose function is simply to transform into others, they are precursor cells for others. There are however two categories of stem cells.
On the one hand, the more flexible embryonic ones that precede the cells of our entire body, can become neurons or cells of our epidermis. And on the other, adult or differentiated stem cells, which can only take the form of cells of a specific category, such as cells of a specific tissue or organ.
The key is that some cancer cells behave in the same way, like stem cells that change their structure to become another type of cell. And this cell may not be cancerous. Some researchers are now trying to make these cancer stem cells “mature” or differentiate in order to limit their ability to mutate into new tumor cells. It is called differentiation therapy.
Differentiation as therapy.
But forcing cancer cells to simply mutate into healthy cells is no easy task. Among the teams studying these therapies are researchers from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago Huanhuan Joyce Chen and Abhimanyu Thakur.
These researchers explain how they try to do it, through hormones and cytokines, proteins involved in communication between cells. After observing that hormones and cytokines could stimulate stem cells to mature and lose their ability to regenerate, “it was concluded that forcing cancer stem cells to differentiate into more mature cells could subsequently prevent them from dividing uncontrollably, turning them into normal cells.
Success against Leukemia.
As Chen and Thakur themselves continue, this type of therapy has been used for years against a specific type of cancer, promyelocytic leukemia, a cancer that appears in the blood. In this case, the therapy involves blocking the maturation of myeloid cells, cells present in our blood.
Despite the good results in the fight against leukemia, the use of this therapy in other types of cancer is still a long way off. For now, for these types of therapies to be efficient, they need to be used in conjunction with other treatments, explain the researchers from the University of Chicago. They also point out how therapy can have adverse effects on the development of tumors.
Differentiation therapy will have to prove its safety if it is to become part of the tools available to us in the fight against cancer. It must also demonstrate its effectiveness in making it disappear or at least reduce the risk that tumors may pose.
“Reprogram” cells against cancer.
This is not the only treatment that proposes to “reprogram” cancer cells as a way to combat tumors. Reprogrammed cells could also be used to kill tumors and even train our immune systems to prevent cancer from coming back.
This can be done through stem cells as in the case of differentiation therapy or also through gene editing of the cancer cells themselves. It is this last mechanism, already studied in mice, that could prevent the return of some tumors.
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