Stem cell breakthrough – great news for cancer patients

CI_logoSydney researchers this week revealed a stem cell research breakthrough that will have a massive impact for cancer sufferers requiring bone marrow transplants.

Publishing the results in the esteemed biotechnology journal Nature Biotechnology, lead author Professor John Rasko and his team from Centenary Institute have found, for the first time, a way of growing an increasing number of blood-forming stem cells outside the body.

Patients who receive stem cell transplants for various conditions or treatments, including leukaemia or chemotherapy, could soon expect significantly improved outcomes thanks to the landmark finding by the research team at the Centenary Institute, Royal Prince Alfred (RPA) Hospital and the University of Sydney.

Stem cell transplants are vital for treating cancer patients who have had their bone marrow destroyed by chemotherapy.

But it is often a problem collecting enough cells to continue treatment.

Professor Rasko says the new procedure has tripled the number of rare stem cells now available.

“Our research has, for the first time, successfully demonstrated that physical forces created by elasticity play a key role in blood-forming cell growth and may mimic the environment of stem cells inside our body,” said Prof. Rasko from the Centenary Institute and RPA Hospital.

“It’s the first time that we’ve been able to grow these blood-forming stem cells outside the body on an elastic bed or mattress”.

Recognising the expertise of scientists at Centenary Institute, the Australian Cancer Research Foundation has provided significant funding in past years with more than $5 million in grants to Centenary. Likewise, the scientist in charge of the team who made the new discovery, Prof John Rasko received $1.2 million in 2006 for the Royal Prince Alfred ACRF Cell & Molecular Therapy Laboratories.

Scientists say this breakthrough has the potential to cut the number of painful bone marrow harvests needed for transplants. In turn it will also increase the number of people able to use rare donations of blood taken from umbilical cords.

“Over 3,500 people die of blood cancers each year in Australia and the number of blood cancers is increasing dramatically,” Professor Rasko said.

“Diseases like leukaemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma substantially increases in number as our population ages. In fact, there is over 1,100 bone marrow transplants or stem cell transplants in Australia each year.

“This technology will allow us to expand the number of cells and potentially make this transplant safer or make them available to a greater number of people because those cord blood samples, for example, are very limiting in their number.”

Researchers hope to start clinical trials next year and believe the technology will be mainstream in five years time.