Using Fat Stem Cells to Treat a Deadly Cancer

Johns Hopkins University researchers have reported the successful use of stem cells derived from human body fat to deliver biological treatments directly to the brains of mice suffering from the most common and aggressive form of brain tumor. Such treatments significantly extended the lives of these cancer-stricken animals.

These experiments offer proof-of-principle that such a technique would work in human patients after surgical removal of brain cancers called glioblastomas. This technique provides a way to find and destroy any remaining cancer cells in those areas of the brain that are difficult to reach. Glioblastoma cells represent a challenge for cancer treatments, since they are quite sprightly, and can migrate across the entire brain, hide out and establish new tumors. Consequently, the cure rates for glioblastoma are notoriously low.

In the mouse experiments conducted by the Johns Hopkins group, investigators used mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) from fat tissue. Fat-based MSCs have a mysterious ability to sniff out cancer and other damaged cells. After genetically modifying the MSCs so that they secreted a protein called bone morphogenetic protein 4 (BMP4), these MSCs were injected into the brains of mice that suffered from glioblastomas. BMP-4 is a small, secreted protein that plays essential regulatory roles in embryonic development, but also has a demonstrated tumor suppression function.

Study leader Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, M.D., a professor of neurosurgery, oncology and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and his colleagues published the results of this experiment in the journal Clinical Cancer Research. According to their results, those mice that were treated with the BMP-4-secreting fat-based MSCs had significantly less tumor growth and spread. In general the cancers in these animals were less aggressive and had fewer migratory cancer cells compared to mice that didn’t get the treatment. Also, the stem cell-treated mice survived significantly longer (an average of 76 days, compared to 52 days in the untreated mice).

“These modified mesenchymal stem cells are like a Trojan horse, in that they successfully make it to the tumor without being detected and then release their therapeutic contents to attack the cancer cells.”

Standard treatments for glioblastoma include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Unfortunately, even a combination of all three rarely leads to more than 18 months of survival after diagnosis. Discovering new ways to seek and destroy straggling glioblastoma cells that other treatments can’t get is a long-sought goal, says Quinones-Hinojosa. However, he also cautions that years of additional studies are needed before human trials of fat-derived MSC therapies could begin.

Quinones-Hinojosa also treated brain cancer patients at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, and he and his co-workers were greatly encouraged that the genetically-engineered stem cells let loose into the brain in his experiments did not transform themselves into new tumors.

These latest findings build on research published in March 2013 by Quinones-Hinojosa and his team, which demonstrated that harvesting MSCs from fat was much less invasive and less expensive than getting them from bone marrow (PLoS One, March 2013).

Ideally, he says, if MSCs work as a cancer treatment, a patient with a glioblastoma would have some adipose tissue (fat) removed from any number of locations in the body a short time before surgery. Afterwards, these fat-derived MSCs would be isolated and manipulated in the laboratory so that they would secrete BMP4. Then, after surgeons removed whatever parts of the brain tumor they could get to, they would deposit these BMP-secreting cells into the brain in the hopes that they would seek out and destroy the left-over cancer cells.


Bmi1 Controls Adult Stem Cell “Stemness”

Stem cell scientists from the laboratory of Ophir Klein at UC San Francisco have discovered a new role for a protein called Bmi1 that might give clues as to how to get adult stem cells to regenerate organs.

Ophir Klein, the director of the Craniofacial and Mesenchymal Biology Program and chairman of the Division of Craniofacial Anomalies at UC San Francisco, said “Scientists have known that Bmi1 is a central control switch within the adult stem cells of many tissues, including the brain, blood, lung and mammary gland. Bmi1 also is a cancer-causing gene that becomes reactivated in cancer cells.”

Crystal structure of the BMI1 protein
Crystal structure of the BMI1 protein

All stem cells are somewhat immature in comparison to their adult counterparts. Stem cells also have the capacity to divide almost indefinitely and generate specialized cells. Bmi1 acts as a molecular switch that, if pushed in one direction, drives stem cells to proliferate and grow, but if pushed in the opposite direction, keeps cell proliferation in check. Research from Klein’s lab now suggests that Bmi1 might prevent the progeny of stem cells from differentiating into the wrong cell types in the wrong location.

Downstream targets of Bmi1
Downstream targets of Bmi1

This new discovery suggests that manipulation of Bmi1 and other regulatory molecules might be some of the steps included in laboratory recipes to turn specialized cell development on and off to create new cell-based treatments for tissue lost to injury, disease, or aging.

Also, the dual role of Bmi1 in pathological settings might be intriguing. Cancers are, in many cases, driven by adult stem cells that behave abnormally. If these stem cells could be differentiated, then their growth would slow. Possibly, inactivating Bmi1 in tumor stem cells might be one strategy.

In these experiments, Klein and his colleagues examined those adult stem cells found in the large incisors of mice. Unlike humans, these teeth grow continuously and are, therefore, an attractive model for stem cell research. Klein explained, “There is a large population of stem cells, and the way the daughter cells of the stem cells are produced is easy to track – it’s if they are on a conveyor belt.” Early in life, human beings possess a stem cell population that similarly drive tooth development, but they become inactive after the adult teeth are fully formed during early childhood.

Mouse mandible showing  the large, paired incisors
Mouse mandible showing the large, paired incisors

In the current study, postdoctoral research fellows Brian Biehs and Jimmy Hu showed that at the base of the growing mouse incisor there is a stem cell population that actively expresses Bmi1. In these cells, Bmi1 suppressed a set of genes called Hox genes. When activated, the Hox genes trigger the development of specific cell types and body structures.

In the mouse incisor, Bmi1 keeps these stem cells in their stem cell state and prevent them from differentiating prematurely or inappropriately. “This new knowledge is useful in a fundamental way for understanding how cell differentiating is controlled and may help us manipulate stem cells to get them to do what we want to do,” said Klein.

As they state in the abstract of their paper: “As Hox gene upregulation has also been reported in other systems when Bmi1 is inactivated our findings point to a general mechanism whereby BMI1-mediated repression of Hox genes is required for the maintenance of adult stem cells and for prevention of inappropriate differentiation.”

Thus this finding from the Klein lab may provide a vital clue for the manipulation of adult stem cells and, perhaps, cancer cells.

What Does Breast Cancer Have to Do With Skin Stem Cells?

BRCA1 is a gene that plays a huge role in breast cancer. Particular mutations in BRCA1 predispose women increased risks of breast cancer cervical, uterine, pancreatic, and colon cancer and men to increased risks of pancreatic cancer, testicular cancer, and early-onset prostate cancer.

BRCA1 encodes a protein that helps repair damage to chromosomes. When this protein product does not function properly, cells cannot properly repair acquired chromosomal damage, and they die or become transformed into cancer cells.

What does this have to do with stem cells? A study led by Cédric Blanpain from the Université libre de Bruxelles showed that BRCA1 is critical for the maintenance of hair follicle stem cells.

Peggy Sotiropoulou and her colleagues in Blanpain’s laboratory showed that when BRCA1 is deleted, hair follicle cells how very high levels of DNA damage and cell death. This accumulated DNA damaged drives the follicle stem cells to divide furiously until they burn themselves out. This is in contrast to the other stem cell populations in the skin, particularly those in the sebaceous glands and epidermis, which are maintained and seem unaffected by deletion of BRCA1.

Sotiropoulou said of these results: “We were very surprised to see that distinct types of cells residing within the same tissue may exhibit such profoundly different responses to the deletion of the same crucial gene for DNA repair.”

This work provides some of the first clues about how DNA repair mechanisms in different types of adult stem cells are employed at different stages of stem cells activation. Blanpain and his group is determining if other stem cells in the body are also affected by the loss of BRCA1. These results might elucidate why mutations in BRCA1 causes cancer in the breast and ovaries, but not in other tissues.