Regenerative Medicine Cluster Initiative in BC

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A repurposed drug could open door to more stem cell transplants

A medication used to treat joint and skin conditions might also help people whose only hope of surviving cancer is receiving stem cells from a donor, according to research by a University of British Columbia scientist.

Transplants of blood stem cells, which can differentiate into all types of blood cells, can be a cure for life-threatening blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma. But the treatment is often not pursued, because typical donations – often from umbilical cord blood – are unlikely to take root in a patient’s bone marrow and grow into a self-sustaining, blood-forming system.

Researchers at UBC and the University of Toronto discovered one of the reasons why: Once transplanted, some of the differentiated cells have a self-destructive tendency to produce tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a), a protein that cells deploy against infection, but which is sometimes overproduced, killing healthy cells.

That finding led Peter Zandstra, Director of UBC’s new School of Biomedical Engineering and UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories, to explore whether one of several existing drugs that block TNF-a would allow human blood stem cells to thrive in a new host – in this case, mice with genetically-weakened immune systems.

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