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Re-Engineered Cells Help Drugs Target Disease, Reduce Side Affects

Ernie Shannon's picture

Sometimes the treatment IS worse than the disease and sometimes the “solution” can kill!

Not a few patients have come away from intensive drug treatment in response to serious illness feeling the ailment would have been more tolerable, even preferable to a regimen that leaves them battling a host of side effects. Now, researchers are toying with cell engineering that gives new meaning to personalized medical care.

Scientists at San Francisco’s Gladstone Institute recently announced they’ve reprogrammed human skin cells into brain cells and working heart cells. As Dr. Yadong Huang describes, cells from an Alzheimer’s patient’s skin is scraped, turned into a brain cell on which new drug therapies are tested. If there’s an adverse reaction to a drug then other options are sought. The key is that the patient’s newly re-programmed cells maintain the patient’s DNA.

“There are some drugs that can’t be put on the market because some patients respond badly to a drug. If the drug kills five percent of the patients, the FDA won’t approve it,” said Huang, who heads up the Gladstone study. “If we make reprogrammed cells from an individual patient, we can test different types of drugs on those cells. A patient might not respond well to drug A, but will respond to drug B.”

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The process of re-programming cells is interesting in itself. Clay Marsh, executive director for Ohio State University’s Center for Personalized Health Care, says the process is getting easier every day and scientists may soon be able to turn skin cells into any type of cell. The process involves turning skin cells into what are known as iPS cells – a type of stem cell that can then be re-specialized into other types of cells.

The idea of testing dugs in a tube and altering cells allows doctors to dream of the time when physicians could regrow functioning organs, but for now there are a variety of obstacles ahead. Not the least of those obstacles is the challenge of testing drugs on a particular cell when the targeted disease attacks multiple cell types. That’s often the case of cancer.

“Testing drugs in a test tube gives us a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle,” Marsh said. “Even if a drug, in isolation, affected the derived cells in a positive way, that doesn’t mean it’ll affect that person in a positive way,” he said.

Nevertheless, scientists are more certain than ever before that the day is coming when treatment is specialized based on a patient’s genetic makeup. Instead of treating every patient with same drug and waiting to see the results, doctors will become more precise in the type of drug and level of treatment authorized for each patient.

Reference: UCSF