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Stem Cells Engineered to Attack Multiple Cancer Types in Mice

October 17, 2019

Lab mouse

One dose of one treatment to defeat multiple types of cancers?

That’s the intriguing, if far-off, possibility suggested by a new development by UCLA scientists working with mice. The scientists focused on boosting production of “killer” immune cells that, though powerful, aren’t naturally prevalent enough in humans to make much of a difference for cancer patients.


According to the UCLA newsroom, when caused to proliferate, the cells, called iNKT for invariant natural killer T cells, suppressed the growth of multiple types of human tumors implanted in mice. The scientists knew going in that human patients with naturally higher levels of the cells live longer than those with lower levels, yet generally less than 0.1% of blood cells are iNKT cells.

Learn More About Hematopoietic Stem and Immune Cells

Researchers genetically engineered stem cells

To carry out the experiment, the researchers started with hematopoietic stem cells, which are found in the bone marrow and can become all types of blood and immune cells, including iNKT cells. The researchers genetically engineered the stem cells so they were programmed to develop into iNKT cells. They tested the resulting cells on mice with both human bone marrow and human cancers – either multiple myeloma or melanoma.

The stem cells differentiated normally into iNKT cells and continued to produce for the rest of the animals’ lives and they effectively suppressed the tumor growth.

“What’s really exciting is that we can give this treatment just once and it increases the number of iNKT cells to levels that can fight cancer for the lifetime of the animal,” said Lili Yang, a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA and the study’s senior author.

More human stem cell research needed

More work is clearly required. What works in mice doesn’t necessarily work in humans, and the potential side effects are uncertain. On the positive side, stem cell transplants are well established treatments for many blood cancers.

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