Signals Blog

It is said that with age comes “wisdom”; however, I often think that “exhaustion” might serve as a reasonable substitute. As we deal with life’s stresses, and new hairs sprout of snowy white hues, it is hard not to think of our younger days of freedom and vitality.

If I could anthropomorphize a cell, I would think that this is precisely how a cancer-fighting T-cell feels.

T-cells, as you may know, are the champions of our adaptive immune system. Each T-cell will recognize a specific foreign invader (e.g. cancer) and when it meets that invader, it will proliferate to create an army against it. Some invaders are easy to kill, but if T-cells are fighting a particularly difficult tumor they sometimes get, well … worn out.

For this reason, a Japanese research team sought to create a special type of cell transfer immunotherapy that involves rejuvenating a patient’s cancer specific T-cells to their former glory. In their recent study published in Cell Stem Cell, Vizcardo et al. show that they can take melanoma-specific T-cells, dedifferentiate them into induced pluripotent stem cells, and redifferentiate them into functional T-cells that are specific for the same tumor. While this dedifferentiation-redifferentiation strategy may seem rather cyclical and pointless, the idea is that the recreated T-cells are more youthful and stem cell-like in nature, with a restored ability to proliferate and fight the tumor long term.

This study is impressive because the creation of mature T-cells from less differentiated precursors is a very complex and elegant process, which the authors seem to have been able to replicate (to a certain extent). One can imagine that an advantage of using cancer-specific T cells over chemotherapies and radiation therapies is that the damage will be more specific to the tumor with fewer systemic side effects.

Although the authors have yet to rigorously test the endurance of their recreated T-cells for fighting cancer, and induced pluripotent stem cell technology is not yet clinically translatable (although this challenge may soon be overcome and indeed research released earlier this week suggests iPS cells are safer than previously thought), the concept of taking out our weary, old cells and giving them a regenerative boost is rather compelling.

It’s not quite your typical day at the spa but may nevertheless prove interesting to follow over the next decade.


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Holly Wobma

Holly Wobma

MD/PhD student at Columbia University
Holly is an MD-PhD student at Columbia University in New York. She recently (2011) completed a Bachelor of Health Sciences Honours Degree from the University of Calgary, where she pursued research related to nanotechnology and regenerative medicine. In addition to research, she enjoys participating in science outreach roles. Previously, she contributed to an award-winning Nanoscience animation produced by the Science Alberta Foundation (“Do You Know What Nano Means?”), and served on the board of directors for the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations Student Network. Holly's lab tweets @GVNlab.