Scientists Describe Lab Technique With Potential To Change Medicine and Research

WASHINGTON (January 26, 2017) — Researchers who developed and tested a revolutionary laboratory technique that allows for the endless growth of normal and diseased cells in a laboratory are publicly sharing how the technique works.

The Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) researchers hope that by doing so, scientists around the world can realize the many of possibilities of “conditional reprogramming,” which includes living biobanks, personalized and regenerative medicine, and novel cancer research.

Published in Nature Protocols, investigators demonstrate how conditional reprogramming (CR) works, and why it may be able to fill a number of clinical care and research voids.

CR is the only known system that can indefinitely grow healthy as well as cancer cells “as if they were just extracted from a patient, and expand them — a million new cells can be grown in a week — as long as needed,” says the co-lead author Xuefeng Liu, MD, associate professor of pathology and a director in the Center for Cell Reprogramming at Georgetown University Medical Center. 

No genetic modification is needed to coax the cells to grow — all that is used are special “feeder” cells and a chemical inhibitor.

As one example, the researchers demonstrate they are able to use CR to produce new and healthy pancreatic beta islet cells that secrete insulin — suggesting a promising avenue for type I diabetes research.

“A true cure for this kind of diabetes could be achieved by replacing the lost beta cells with new functional insulin producing cells,” says Liu.

The researchers have also grown healthy and cancerous cells from airway tissues, retinas, prostates, breasts, and intestines, which replicate for extended periods with conditional reprogramming.

Since CR was developed and described by Liu, Richard Schlegel, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Cell Reprogramming, and their colleagues at Georgetown in 2011, scientists have been testing the ability of the cells to perform a number of advanced goals. The CR method has spread worldwide, for example, the National Cancer Institute cited the CR method in Precision Medicine Initiatives for oncology and drug discovery programs. Georgetown researchers have trained more than 100 scientists in the technique.

In the newly published protocol, the Georgetown researchers describe many other possibilities that CR offers: among them, living biobanks, personalized and regenerative medicine, and novel cancer research. For example, in a December study published in Oncotarget, Liu and Schlegel describe how CR allows them to grow both normal and primary cancerous prostate cells from a patient. This research represents a critical advance in the effort to understand the origin and drivers of this puzzling cancer.

Additionally, biobanking normal cells from a patient allows the possibility of using those cells in the future to infuse healthy cells into a damaged organ. “We can grow cells, freeze them, thaw them,” Liu says. “Think about use of such cells for skin replacement, for organ patching, and cancer studies.”

CR cancer cells also could allow oncologists to test and select a therapy based on an expanded laboratory population of a patient’s individual cancer cells — a procedure  already conducted at Georgetown and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. An independent research study at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, published in Science, demonstrated that the CR method identified a combination of therapies for resistant lung cancer patients.

Several institutes have used CR platform for discovery of anti-cancer drug or new targets. For example, researchers at Helsinki established the first castration-resistant CR cells and discovered both known and novel drug sensitivities in prostate cancer cells, including navitoclax, which is currently being tested in clinical trials of castration-resistant prostate cancer. Yale scientists discovered Notch1 and SOX10 are potential new therapeutic targets of adenoid cystic carcinoma. Researchers at Fox Chase Cancer Center found that MYC–ERCC3 is new target for human pancreatic cancer and applied this novel target for drug discovery.

It may also be possible to fix damaged cells, using gene editing techniques, and then grow new, repaired cells to fix a wide variety of diseases, Liu says. “It is not unimaginable that we could take a tiny nose biopsy from a person with cystic fibrosis, correct the defect that causes the disease, then regrow the healthy cells to infuse back into the lung. Because the cells were derived from the patient, they would not be rejected.”

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Georgetown University has pending patent applications in US and internationally for conditional cell reprogramming and has been awarded a US patent by the United States Patent Office (9,279,106). This technology has been licensed exclusively to a company for further development and commercialization. Georgetown University and the inventors (Liu and Schlegel) receive payments and potential royalties from Propagenix. Schlegel is also a co-founder in the company that has a license to this technology.

Additional authors of the protocol include co-lead author Ewa Krawczyk, PhD, Frank A. Suprynowicz, Palechor-Ceron, DMD, Aleksandra Dakic, PhD, Vera Simic, Yun-Ling Zheng, MD, PhD, Praathibha Sripadhan, Chen Chen, Kie Lu, Tung-Wei Hou, Sujata Choudhury, PhD, Bhaskar Kallakury, MD, Anatoly Dritschilo, MD, Chris Albanese, PhD, and Seema Agarwal from Georgetown University Medical Center; Dean Tang, PhD, from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; Thomas Darling, MD, PhD, and Rajesh Thangapazham, PhD, from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland; and Scott H. Randell, PhD, from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Studies of conditional cell reprogramming were funded by the Center for Cell Reprogramming and by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R33CA177466, R21CA180524, and R01RR032315). 

About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis -- or "care of the whole person." The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization, which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health. Connect with GUMC on Facebook (Facebook.com/GUMCUpdate), Twitter (@gumedcenter) and Instagram (@gumedcenter).