In a promising start to a brand new year, researchers at the University of Tokyo and theRiken Research Centre for Allergy and Immunology may have found a possible cure for some of the worst diseases plaguing mankind, including HIV and cancer.
Working as a team, researchers from both institutions were able to extract live T-cells, the vital powerhouses of the human immune system, from patients, specifically targeting specialized cytotoxic T-cells which have the ability to recognize and attack signs of infection. One donor suffered from skin cancer; another HIV.
Researchers then converted the T-cells back to induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) by exposing them to a group of compounds called the “Yamanaka factors,” in part so they could study the stem cells’ differentiation processes. Then the team reconverted the stem cells back into specialized disease-fighters, the T-cells known as “killer T-cells”or “killer T lymphocytes.” Among other critical findings, researchers discovered that the skin-cancer fighting T-cells remained capable of producing the crucial anti-tumor compound interferon.
Why take the trouble to convert cells to a pluripotent stage, if only to reconvert them to their original state? Because stem cells can be grown at a much faster pace in a laboratory than in the human body, enabling researchers to create killer T lymphocytes that are—at least theoretically—ready for therapeutic human injection.
We’re not there yet, however, the researchers caution. While the iPS cells did reconvert back into their original specializations, it’s unsure whether lab-grown cells will behave similarly to the immune system’s own disease-fighters when injected into the human body. Furthermore, the risk of rejection is high when cells from one patient are grown and converted for use in another.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to predict whether cells that fight cancer in the lab will restrict their deadly effects to cancer cells in the body. Lead researcher Hiroshi Kawamoto, in a press release from the Riken Center, states, “the next step will be to test whether these T cells can selectively kill tumor cells but not other cells in the body.” It’s possible that lab-grown cells could attack normal, healthy human cells after therapeutic injection.
But medical and scientific experts remain cautiously optimistic. Dr. Dusko Ilic, Senior Lecturer in Stem Cell Science, King’s College London, speaking to Mail Online, states, “a lot of work needs to be done before we can think about clinical trials, [but] the initial data are promising.”
The main challenge researchers face is the cost of producing large amounts of killer T lymphocytes safely. Numerous expensive confirmatory studies and trials will need to be conducted before the new therapy is approved for human use.
The implications for the health of humankind, on the other hand, are immediate, and clear. If science has indeed provided a novel means of fighting our most persistent and deadly infections, untold amounts of suffering could be mitigated—and, ultimately, eradicated.