Repurposed fibroblasts may open the door to new melanoma drugs, screening tech

Researchers from a slate of top institutions have hit on a new approach to creating functional melanocytes, the body's pigment-producing cells. And their work could spur a fresh approach to screening and developing new drugs for melanoma as well as producing new cell-based therapies for a variety of skin diseases.

The scientists--a team drawn from the University of Pennsylvania, the Wistar Institute, Boston University School of Medicine, and New Jersey Institute of Technology--repurposed fibroblasts to create the melanocytes, bypassing the pluripotent stem cell stage and thereby avoiding some of the safety issues that have plagued stem cell research in the past.

Their work was based on the discovery of three key transcription factors required for melanocytes: SOX10, MITF, and PAX3, a combination dubbed SMP3. They then tested the approach in mice--it worked--and subsequently used a human-derived SMP3 combination in human fetal dermal cells to make the melanocytes.

Researchers can use the same process to make fibroblasts from melanoma patients. Senior author Xiaowei "George" Xu explains that that means "we can screen not only to find why these patients easily develop melanoma, but possibly use their cells to screen for small compounds that can prevent melanoma from happening." And new cell-based therapies for skin diseases like vitiligo, a loss of pigment in patches of skin, could come of their research.

The work was published in Nature Communications.

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