08/03/2013 09:07 am ET

Intestinal Stem Cells: The Key To Making Cancer Treatment Less Deadly?


If new research tested in mice pans out for humans, there may soon be a way to keep radiation and chemotherapy from killing a cancer patient before they can kill the tumor -- and the key lies in the gut.

Researchers from the University of Michigan found a way to boost stem cells in the intestines by binding a certain molecule to particular proteins. By doing so, the stem cells help to protect the gut from poisonous chemotherapy and radiation -- which are meant to kill cancer cells, but can also kill healthy cells -- and could also stop the toxins from these cancer treatments from going into the bloodstream.

"Now you have a way to make a patient [tolerant] to lethal doses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy," study researcher Jian-Guo Geng, who is an associate professor at the university's School of Dentistry, said in a statement. "In this way, the later-staged, metastasized cancer can be eradicated by increased doses of chemotherapy and radiation."

It's important to note that the research, published in the journal Nature, is still in the early stages and has only been tested on mice so far. But the researchers did find that receiving the molecule led to 50 to 75 percent of mice surviving otherwise-lethal chemotherapy doses. Meanwhile, mice that didn't receive the molecule died from the dose.

"If you can keep the gut going, you can keep the patient going longer," Geng said in the statement. "Now we have found a way to protect the intestine. The next step is to aim for a 100-percent survival rate in mice who are injected with the molecules and receive lethal doses of chemotherapy and radiation."



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