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Red blood cells

Undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells can be used to make blood cells like natural killer cells or red blood cells (pictured).

Embryonic stem cells made to produce cancer-fighting cells

By Sara Buss

From M, winter 2006

For the first time, stem cell researchers at the University of Minnesota have coaxed human embryonic stem cells to create cancer-killing cells in the laboratory, paving the way for future treatments for various types of cancers (or tumors). The research will be published in the October 15 issue of the Journal of Immunology.

Researchers generated "natural killer" cells from the human embryonic stem cells. As part of the immune system, natural killer cells normally are present in the bloodstream and play a role in defending the body against infection and against some cancers. The natural killer cells produced by the researchers were found capable of destroying certain human cancer cells in vitro (in the test tube).

"This is the first published research to show the ability to make cells from human embryonic stem cells that are able to treat and fight cancer, especially leukemias and lymphomas," says Dan Kaufman, assistant professor of medicine in the Stem Cell Institute and Department of Medicine and lead author of the study.

"We hear a lot about the potential of stem cells to treat conditions such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease." Kaufman says. "This research suggests it is possible that we could use human embryonic stem cells as a source for immune cells that could better target and destroy cancer cells and potentially treat infections."

The results also provided the researchers with a model of how the immune system develops.

Next, the researchers will test whether the human embryonic stem cell-derived natural killer cells can target cancer cells in animal models.

This research was done on two of the federally approved embryonic stem cell lines. Kaufman says, however, that if the research continues to point to a treatment for people, new lines would have to be developed.

The National Institutes of Health and the American Society of Hematology funded this research.