A newly published report has shown that stem cells can be adapted to help cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
The report, published in Science Translational Medicine (link?), details the use of genetically modified stem cells which are then used to protect the bone marrow of a patient while the chemotherapy drugs attack the cancer cells. It is hoped that this ‘Stem Cell Shield’ process, when perfected, will protect patients from the harmful effects inherent to a course of chemotherapy.
There are upwards of fifty chemotherapy drugs and they are administered in a variety of combinations depending on the type of cancer (there are over 200) in question. Once a course of chemotherapy has been decided upon the patient will typically be administered the drugs intravenously or orally. The drugs then enter the bloodstream. This allows the drugs to reach cancer cells anywhere in the human body. This procedure is followed by a rest period to allow the healthy cells (which are also affected by the drugs during treatment) time to recover.
This recovery time is important as common side effects of chemotherapy include vomiting and hair loss as the drugs affect areas where cell reproduction is most active; for example the digestive system and the hair follicles. The bone marrow is also susceptible to harm from chemotherapy. The material that fills the bones, bone marrow contains stem cells which develop into three types of blood cell; erythrocyte, leucocyte and thrombocyte (red cells, white cells and platelets).
The damage from chemotherapy causes the bone marrow’s cell production to fall. The drop in erythrocyte production leads to fatigue and shortness of breath while the low production of leucocyte opens the patient up to a higher risk of infection. These white cells make up part of the immune system and a low white cell count means the patient is at a much greater risk of contracting an infection. This is known as neutropenia.
The research published this week reports that trials wherein subjects were provided with a ‘stem cell shield’ were successful in protecting the subjects healthy bone marrow cells from the chemotherapy drugs and from the ensuing side effects. However, these results are based on the use of only one chemotherapy drug. It is hoped that, once perfected, this process will offer bone marrow protection to the full spectrum of chemotherapy drugs and allow doctors to more aggressively attack a patient’s cancer while minimising the risks to the patient’s health during the treatment.