Pancreatic cancer breakthrough: scientists turn cancer cells into normal cells

Scanning electron micrograph of pancreatic cells

Scanning electron micrograph of pancreatic cells

A new research study has shown that pancreatic cancer cells can be coaxed to revert back toward normal cells by introducing a protein called E47.

E47 binds to specific DNA sequences and controls genes involved in growth and differentiation. The research provides hope for a new treatment approach for the more than 40,000 people who die from the disease each year in the United States.

“For the first time, we have shown that overexpression of a single gene can reduce the tumor-promoting potential of pancreatic adenocarcinoma cells and reprogram them toward their original cell type. Thus, pancreatic cancer cells retain a genetic memory which we hope to exploit,” said Pamela Itkin-Ansari, Ph.D., adjunct professor in the Development, Aging, and Regeneration Program at Sanford-Burnham and lead author of the study published today in the journal Pancreas.

E47 turns the clock back
The study, a collaborative effort between Sanford-Burnham, UC San Diego, where Itkin-Ansari holds a joint appointment, and Purdue University, generated human pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma cell lines to make higher-than-normal levels of E47. The increased amount of E47 caused cells to stall in the G0/G1 growth phase, and differentiate back toward an acinar cell phenotype.

In-vivo studies showed that when the reprogrammed cancer cells were introduced into mice, their ability to form tumors was greatly diminished compared to untreated adenocarcinoma cells.

“Presently, pancreatic adenocarcinoma is treated with cytotoxic agents, yet the average survival for  patients post-diagnosis is merely six months, and the improvements in therapies are measured in days,” said Andrew M. Lowy, M.D., professor of surgery at the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center and co-chair of the National Cancer Institute’s Pancreatic Cancer Task Force. “The finding that we can differentiate these cancer cells back to a non-threatening phenotype is encouraging. Indeed, there is a precedent for cell differentiation therapy in that the approach has been used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) and some neuroblastomas successfully.”

“Our next step is to test primary patient-derived tumor tissue to determine whether E47 can produce similar results, potentially providing a novel therapeutic approach to combating this highly lethal disease,” said Itkin-Ansari. “Additionally, we are screening for molecules—potential drugs—that can induce overexpression of E47.”

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Researchers Develop Novel Drug That Reverses Loss of Brain Connections in Models of Alzheimer’s

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An Alzheimer’s patient may be able to have synaptic connections restored even with plaques and tangles already in his or her brain

The first experimental drug to boost brain synapses lost in Alzheimer’s disease has been developed by researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. The drug, called NitroMemantine, combines two FDA-approved medicines to stop the destructive cascade of changes in the brain that destroys the connections between neurons, leading to memory loss and cognitive decline.

The decade-long study, led by Stuart A. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the Del E. Webb Center for Neuroscience, Aging, and Stem Cell Research, who is also a practicing clinical neurologist, shows that NitroMemantine can restore synapses, representing the connections between nerve cells (neurons) that have been lost during the progression of Alzheimer’s in the brain. The research findings are described in a paper published June 17 by theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

The focus on a downstream target to treat Alzheimer’s, rather than on amyloid beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles—approaches which have shown little success—“is very exciting because everyone is now looking for an earlier treatment of the disease,” Lipton said. “These findings actually mean that you might be able to intercede not only early but also a bit later.” And that means that an Alzheimer’s patient may be able to have synaptic connections restored even with plaques and tangles already in his or her brain.

Targeting lost synapses

In their study, conducted in animal models as well as brain cells derived from human stem cells, Lipton and his team mapped the pathway that leads to synaptic damage in Alzheimer’s. They found that amyloid beta peptides, which were once thought to injure synapses directly, actually induce the release of excessive amounts of the neurotransmitter glutamate from brain cells called astrocytes that are located adjacent to the nerve cells.

Normal levels of glutamate promote memory and learning, but excessive levels are harmful. In patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, excessive glutamate activates extrasynaptic receptors, designated eNMDA receptors (NMDA stands for N-methyl-D-aspartate), which get hyperactivated and in turn lead to synaptic loss.

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via Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute & Newswise
 

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Mending a Broken Heart With a Molecule That Turns Stem Cells Into Heart Cells

There’s no shortage of therapeutic possibilities for ITD-1

For years, scientists have been looking for a good source of heart cells that can be used to study cardiac function in the lab, or perhaps even to replace diseased or damaged tissue in heart disease patients. To do this, many are looking to stem cells. Researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham), the Human BioMolecular Research Institute, and ChemRegen, Inc. have been searching for molecules that convert stem cells to heart cells for about eight years — and now they’ve found one.

Writing in the August 3 issue of Cell Stem Cell, the team describes how they sifted through a large collection of drug-like chemicals and uncovered ITD-1, a molecule that can be used to generate unlimited numbers of new heart cells from stem cells.

“Heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country. Because we can’t replace lost cardiac muscle, the condition irreversibly leads to a decline in heart function and ultimately death. The only way to effectively replace lost heart muscle cells — called cardiomyocytes — is to transplant the entire heart,” said Mark Mercola, Ph.D., director of Sanford-Burnham’s Muscle Development and Regeneration Program and senior author of the study. “Using a drug to create new heart muscle from stem cells would be far more appealing than heart transplantation.”

Searching for a needle in a haystack

Stem cells are important because they do two unique things —

  1. self-renew, producing more stem cells and
  2. differentiate, becoming other, more specialized cell types.

To obtain a large number of a certain cell type, such as heart cells, the hard part is figuring out the signals that direct them to become the desired cell type.
Mercola’s group has been hunting for heart-inducing signals for 15 years — in embryos and in stem cells. To find a synthetic molecule that might one day lead to a drug therapy to regenerate the heart, they joined forces with a team of medicinal chemists at the Human BioMolecular Research Institute led by John Cashman, Ph.D. With funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, they used sophisticated robotic technology to methodically test a large collection of drug-like chemicals, looking for that needle in a haystack that, when added to stem cells, results in cardiomyocytes. The winning compound was ITD-1.

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via Science Digest
 

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