February 28, 2024

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Hong Hong: Reimagining Cancer Care with Stem Cell Tech

Image Credits: HKU, Press Releasev

A collaborative effort between the LKS Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong (HKUMed) and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has led to a breakthrough in cancer immunotherapy using stem cells to produce human immune cells. This development, detailed in Signal Transduction and Targeted Therapy, offers a promising avenue for enhancing the effectiveness of cancer treatment.

Cancer immunotherapy has made significant strides in patient care, yet a persistent challenge lies in sourcing immune cells. Often, immune cells from cancer patients are compromised due to mutations or depletion induced by chemotherapy, rendering them ineffective against cancer cells. Thus, there is a critical need to develop a reliable method for generating immune cells capable of recognising and targeting cancer cells within the body.

Stem cells, with their remarkable self-renewal and differentiation capabilities, present a promising solution as a source of immune cells. However, conventional techniques involving genetic modification, such as lentiviral transduction, raise safety concerns for patient application. To address this, researchers sought to harness the natural process by which the body generates immune cells. By mimicking the growth factor environment of embryonic development, the team aimed to derive immune cells from stem cells without genetic modification.

The research team used human expanded potential stem cells, which offer advantages over induced pluripotent stem cells in terms of differentiation potential. Employing a cocktail of growth factors akin to those found in embryos, the team successfully generated embryonic tissues from stem cells in vitro. Through innovative spatial transcriptomics algorithms, the team analysed gene expression within individual cells, revealing close resemblances to human foetal samples. This breakthrough signifies a significant step towards faithfully replicating the body’s natural immune cell generation process.

Dr Rio Sugimura, Lead Author of the study and Assistant Professor at HKUMed emphasises the potential of this platform to enhance cancer immunotherapy efficacy. The team is actively exploring strategies to further improve cancer-targeting capabilities, focusing initially on liver cancer, a prevalent concern in Hong Kong. The ultimate goal is the large-scale production of immune cells, including the induction of chimeric antigen receptors (CAR-T cells), for use in cancer treatment across various types of cancer.

Dr. Sugimura led the multidisciplinary research team, which included PhD candidates and researchers from HKUMed and HKUST, along with collaborators from the University of Pittsburgh, United States. The research received support from various funding sources, including the Research Grants Council, the School of Biomedical Sciences at HKUMed, the Innovation and Technology Commission of the HKSAR Government, and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in the United States.

The successful establishment of a robust platform for generating functional immune cells from human-expanded potential stem cells represents a significant advancement in cancer immunotherapy. This breakthrough holds promise for improving patient outcomes and addressing challenges associated with immune cell sourcing in cancer treatment. The team’s ongoing efforts aim to translate this research into clinical practice, offering new avenues for cancer treatment and patient care.

The development aligns with the HKSAR Government’s goals of fostering innovation in the healthcare and biotechnology sectors. By supporting cutting-edge research and technology like stem cell-based cancer immunotherapy, the government aims to enhance healthcare standards, promote economic growth, and position Hong Kong as a global hub for biomedical innovation and excellence.


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