Scientists from Harvard Medical School have discovered a way to turn stem cells into cancer killing machines.

For those who have read my recent article about a paralysed man being able to walk I spoke about how the medical breakthroughs were coming thick and fast. This new research just seems to reinforce my point.

In experiments on mice, the stem cells were genetically engineered to produce and release a toxin which would kill brain cancer cells but leave ordinary cells unharmed.

Researchers said that the next stage was to test the procedure in humans. A fellow stem cell expert said this was “the future” of cancer treatment.

The study was published in the journal Stem Cells and was the work of scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. For many years this group, along with many others, have been searching for a way to use stem cells effectively in treating cancer. This was because stem cells represent currently, and will continue to represent, the best method of destroying cancer cells whilst leaving the surrounding tissue undamaged.

They used genetic engineering to make stem cells that spewed out cancer-killing toxins. The crucial detail however is that the engineered cells were also able to resist the effects of the poison they were producing. They could also clearly show that there was no risk to normal, healthy cells.

In animal tests, the stem cells were surrounded in a gel and placed at the site of the brain tumour after it had been removed. Their cancer cells then died as they had no defence against the toxins being produced.

Dr Khalid Shah, director of the molecular neurotherapy and imaging lab at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said “After doing all of the molecular analysis and imaging to track the inhibition of protein synthesis within brain tumours, we do see the toxins kill the cancer cells.”

He would add when concerning solid tumours “Cancer-killing toxins have been used with great success in a variety of blood cancers, but they don’t work as well in solid tumours because the cancers aren’t as accessible and the toxins have a short half-life.” But now things have changed “Now, we have toxin-resistant stem cells that can make and release cancer-killing drugs.”

Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, said: “This is a clever study, which signals the beginning of the next wave of therapies. It shows you can attack solid tumours by putting mini pharmacies inside the patient which deliver the toxic payload direct to the tumour. Cells can do so much. This is the way the future is going to be.”

Cancer Research UK praised the study as “an ingenious approach” and said “We urgently need better treatments for brain tumours”.

Whilst thus far the cells have only been effective in a lab setting the movement towards curing cancer through stem cell research has taken a massive leap. Dr Shah now plans to test the technique using a number of different therapies on mice with glioblastoma, the most common brain tumour in human adults. Though do not hope for the drug to become available soon Dr Shah is hoping for the drug to come to clinical trials in the next 5 years.

This could well represent a gigantic shift in how cancer is treated. The need for a more effective method in battling brain tumours has been needed for years and now we may have a solution. Yet again it is difficult not to be awed by the power of science and medicine.