Scientists could produce cancer-killing cells
SEOUL - A team of South Korean scientists say they have found a way to produce the human body's own cancer-killing cells through gene therapy, offering new hope to cancer sufferers.
The team said they had found that a gene called Vitamin D3 Upregulated Protein 1 (VDUP1) plays a crucial role in directing stem cells to diversify into immune cells known as natural killer cells.
"Stem cells can develop into various cells and organs in the body," said the leader of the team, Inpyo Choi of the state-financed Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology in the central city of Daejeon.
"We have found that when hematopoietic stem cells diversify into NK cells, the gene, Vitamin D3 Upregulated Protein 1 (VDUP1), plays a decisive role," he told AFP.
"We have also succeeded in developing technology needed to induce stem cells obtained from a patient's bone marrow to diversify into immune cells and activate them," he said.
"This is the first step toward developing new treatments using our own immune system to fight cancers and other serious diseases," he said.
The result of the study -- which comes as scientists look for ways to supplement existing cancer treatments including chemotherapy, radiology and surgical operations -- was published last week in Immunity, a respected journal of immunology.
The team investigated the role of the VDUP1 gene by breeding mice lacking the gene.
These mice showed minimal changes in the development of other immune cells but there was a "profound reduction" in the numbers of natural killer cells and decreases in the activity of the cells, the researchers found.
In the VDUP1-deprived mice the expression of a protein called CD122 -- a pre-cursor for natural killer cells -- was reduced, showing that the gene was required for CD122 expression and the maturation of natural killer cells.
"These results suggest that VDUP1 is a critical factor for the development and function of NK cells in vivo," the team said.
Yoon Suk-Ran, a member of the team, said they had extracted stem cells from mice and developed them into NK cells.
They injected these cells into mice with skin cancers and confirmed the tumors were contained or killed.
"By developing this method, we may extract stem cells from a patient's bone marrow, culture NK cells and inject them back into the patient's body to treat cancers," he said.
South Korea has selected biotechnology, together with robotics and nano technology, as strategic sectors for future development and supports them with government subsidies for research.