Scientists keep patient's tumor, healthy cells alive in lab

For the first time, researchers can keep both an individual cancer patient's normal cells and tumor cells alive in the laboratory, according to new research led by Georgetown University Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health. They've also filed two patent applications covering the new technology.

"We discovered we can grow normal and tumor cells from the same patient forever," said senior investigator Dr. Richard Schlegel, chairman of the department of pathology at Georgetown's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

If future research bears out, the discovery could greatly advance the practice of personalized medicine, where doctors come up with a treatment that works best for a specific patient, based on his or her individual response to a treatment. By keeping a patient's healthy cells and tumor cells alive in the lab, oncologists could theoretically conduct a more precise diagnosis and find the right drug, or combination therapy that kills cancer cells but spares the healthy ones, researchers believe. Right now, diagnoses and treatment plans are made from frozen biopsies or samples embedded in wax.

The discovery revolves around the notion that two substances added to cancer and normal cells in the lab nudge them into becoming like stem cells: a Rho kinase (ROCK) inhibitor and fibroblast feeder cells. The first ingredient helps stop cells from moving and turns on stem cell attributes. The second element keeps the cells alive. The research builds on previous work by co-investigator Alison McBride of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who found that a ROCK inhibitor enabled skin cells to reproduce in the lab, and that the feeder cells kept them nourished and functioning. They found that both had an effect on nonkeratinocyte epithelial cells that line glands and organs, with promising responses in breast, prostate, lung and colon cells.

Their discovery may also benefit future research in regenerative medicine. By taking the ROCK inhibitor away, scientists found that the cells differentiated into the adult cells they initially were, reversing their stem cell-like behavior. Such a technique could help with cell regeneration.

Details are published online in the American Journal of Pathology.

- here's the release
- access the paper here

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