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Breakthrough May Help Oncologists Find Individual Therapies

Dr. Richard Schlegel

Dr. Richard Schlegel, chair of the pathology department at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, is the senior investigator of a research team that discovered how to keep cancer patients' cells alive in a laboratory.

December 19, 2011 – For the first time ever, Georgetown and National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers have discovered a way to keep an individual cancer patient’s normal and tumor cells alive in a laboratory.

The discovery is likely to usher in a new era of personalized cancer medicine.

“Because every tumor is unique, this advance will make it possible for an oncologist to find the right therapy that both kills a patient’s cancer and spares normal cells from toxicity,” says the study’s senior investigator, Dr. Richard Schlegel, chair of the pathology department at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Fantastic Potential

The discovery makes it possible for scientists to garner live cultures of normal and cancerous cells from patients and use those to diagnose tumors and screen treatments, Schlegel says.

“That has fantastic potential,” he says.

The ability to immortalize cancer cells will also make biobanking (storing biological samples for future research) both viable and relevant, Schlegel adds.

A First

In today’s online American Journal of Pathology, NIH researchers and Schlegel’s team explain how the technique pushes cancer and normal cells to morph into stem-like cells –adult cells from which other cells are made – by adding two different biological substances.

“In short, we discovered we can grow normal and tumor cells from the same patient forever,” Schlegel says. “And nobody has [ever before] been able to do that.”

Patents in Process

The research, funded by grants from NIH, the National Cancer Institute, the Department of Defense and an internal grant from Lombardi, also has potential application in regenerative medicine.

Georgetown and NIH have filed two patent applications on technologies described in the paper. The inventors for one of the patents jointly owned by Georgetown and NIH includes Schlegel and Xuefeng Liu, assistant professor at Lombardi.


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