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April 2023

Finding treatments that work for bowel cancer

Bowel cancer researchers are investigating how to find the right treatment for your cancer faster by growing copies of your tumour in the lab. The Foundation is supporting this research project through our Matched Funding Program. Read more below.

A guide to treatment

Should you spend thousands of dollars on those stem cell injections for arthritic knees? How are bone marrow transplants saving lives and what do they involve? How do clinical trials work and should you take part in one?

Our guide to stem cell treatments answers these questions and others. It provides the information people need to make informed choices about their healthcare. Read on for details.

Board update

Congratulations to Professor Megan Munsie who has been elected to the board of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. Megan is an award-winning expert in stem cell ethics, policy, and education, and is a member of our volunteer board that includes stem cell research experts.

We also welcome Professor Alice Pebay to our Science and Ethics Committee. She comes from a background in reprogramming cells to study neurodegenerative diseases of the eye and brain. And we welcome existing Science and Ethics Committee member medical oncologist and breast cancer researcher Professor Geoff Lindeman as a new member of our board.

Also in this newsletter: a US woman is in remission for HIV and leukaemia after she received HIV-resistant stem cells from cord blood, scientists are looking to build computers using brain cells grown in a petri dish, and an Australian company is trialling stem cells to treat chronic heart failure in a US study. More in our roundup of stem cell news.

Kind regards,

Dr Graeme L Blackman AO

Chairman, National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia

In this bulletin:

Finding treatments for bowel cancer that will work

Bowel cancer researchers are investigating how to find the right treatment for an individual patient’s cancer faster by growing copies of their tumour in the lab. 

Melbourne researcher Professor Helen Abud and colleagues have taken tumour cells from patients who have an aggressive subtype of bowel cancer and successfully grown them into tumours in test tubes. They are now trialling these lab tumours as a testbed to quickly determine how effective drugs are likely to be in individual patients.

The cells come from tumour biopsies and so retain the genetic blueprint of the patient’s original tumour. The Foundation is backing the trial through its Matched Funding Program.

Helen and her team at the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute is conducting the trial in partnership with Professor Paul McMurrick, Dr Rebekah Engel and colleagues at the Cabrini Department of Surgery. Together, they hope that testing such treatments in lab tumours before patients commence chemotherapy will allow researchers and oncologists to trial an array of drug combinations and determine how well each individual patient’s cells respond. This information can then be used to prescribe effective care and avoid the side effects and costs associated with futile therapy.

Colorectal or “bowel” cancer is relatively common and has a high mortality rate in Australia.  More than 17,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and over 4,000 deaths were attributed to it.

“We’re trying to have an impact on a particularly aggressive subtype of bowel cancer, that carry a mutation in a gene called BRAF,” Helen explains. “About 10 per cent of patients with bowel cancer have this subtype, and they have a very poor prognosis, with a median survival of less than 12 months.”

Typical treatment involves surgery to remove the tumour, followed by chemotherapy, of which the side effects can include nausea, diarrhoea, hair loss, and infections resulting from a weakened immune system.

Some patients respond well to treatments, some have only a short-term response, and some do not respond at all.

“We want to give patients only treatments that are effective, and prevent them from experiencing side effects if the treatment has no benefit to them. We also want to avoid wasted cost to our healthcare system,” Helen says.

Following surgery, patients have time to recover, before their oncologist prescribes a chemotherapy regimen.

“Because we can grow the tumours pretty quickly, we think it’s possible to grow them, test a panel of drugs, and give feedback to the oncologist, so they have that information in time to guide treatment decisions for patients before they commence therapy in the clinic,” Helen says.

Read full story.

What do patients and their families need to know about stem cell treatments?

“Australians will pay a lot to relieve the pain of arthritis—sometimes opting for unproven therapies using stem cells.”

A recent story on ABC Radio National reported people paying for three or four stem cell injections at $5000 to $12,000 each to treat debilitating knee arthritis. But does it work?

As Professor David Hunter from the University of Sydney told Dr Norman Swan, “We don't know, that's the bottom line, there isn't sufficient evidence at this point in time from good quality clinical trials to suggest that they provide benefit over and above a saltwater injection.”

The Foundation has developed a guidebook to help people weigh up their healthcare options and the costs involved.

“Stem cells are saving lives today, through bone marrow transplants and other well-established treatments,” says Foundation chairman Dr Graeme Blackman.

“However, the Foundation is concerned by the increasing number of expensive, unproven and unethical stem cell therapies being advertised and offered in Australia and overseas.

“We want to help vulnerable people see through the slick online advertising and seemingly positive testimonials, and to know what questions to ask their healthcare providers.”

What you need to know about stem cell therapies is a practical guide for people contemplating stem cell-based treatments or clinical trials. It provides the information people need to make informed choices about their healthcare and answers to common questions such as:

  • How are stem cells currently used as treatments?
  • How might they be used to develop treatments in the future?
  • Are experimental or unproven stem cell treatments worth trying? What are the risks?
  • What questions should I ask my doctor or healthcare specialist?
  • And what are stem cells and why are they special?

The guide includes:

  • a handy list of questions to ask about any stem cell treatments you’re considering
  • an overview of the conditions that are currently treated using approved stem cell therapies
  • information on how new therapies are developed and tested
  • risks of unproven or experimental treatments.

This resource has been developed with oversight from the Foundation's expert Science and Ethics Committee. It is part of the Foundation’s mission to provide trustworthy science-based information for people living with diseases, and their loved ones.

If you or someone you know needs answers, spread the word about this resource.

Visit the Foundation website to download the handbook.

Stem cell news from around the world

Between newsletters, we share stem cell news on social media:

Here are a few stories we’ve shared recently:

Wired: Stem cell ‘junk yards’ reveal a new clue about aging. Paper.

Fierce Biotech: Functional thymus organoids successfully grown from human stem cells. Paper.

New Scientist: Umbilical blood stem cell transplant puts woman in HIV remission.

Forbes: Cell therapy prevents risk of heart attack or stroke: study. Paper.

The Australian: Stem cell ‘elixir’ hope for tiniest babies (subscriber only).

NYU Langone Health NewsHub: Genes that form specific bones in the womb heal them later in life. Paper.

Nature: How stem cells make a human brain.

Cosmos magazine: Stem cell therapy offers potential new treatment option for people with chronic heart failure. Paper.

Nature: How organoids are advancing the understanding of chronic kidney disease.

ISSCR News: Meet the new elected ISSCR leaders.

The Register: Now we're building computers from lab-grown brain cells.

9 News Australia: New study helping to treat chronic heart failure.

ABC Radio National (The Health Report): What's the deal with stem cells and knee arthritis?

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