March 27, 2013 – Georgetown University Medical Center has launched the Center for Cellular Reprogramming to promote research and education of a recent discovery involving stem-like cells that hold great potential for personalized medicine.
The center already has drawn scientists from around the world to learn how to create conditionally reprogrammed cells (CRCs), a procedure also known as the “Georgetown Method,” because of its establishment by university researchers.
“In short, we discovered a way to grow normal and tumor cells from the same patient — forever — and nobody [before] has been able to do that,” says Dr. Richard Schlegel, chair of the department of pathology at GUMC and a professor of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, a part of GUMC.
Schlegel is the new center’s director, while Chris Albanese, director of experimental pathology at Georgetown Lombardi, is now the center’s deputy director.
The Schlegel and Albanese labs will act as the hub of the center, which also includes 15 collaborators from Georgetown Lombardi, GUMC and 10 from around the country, including investigators from Yale University School of Medicine, MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Institutes of Health.
Georgetown Lombardi investigators already are using CRCs to pursue biology-based studies in prostate, breast and many other cancers. The cells are also being used to support two phase I clinical trials within the MedStar Georgetown Cancer Network.
Researchers at Yale, the University of North Carolina and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center are already investigating the utility of CRCs in a variety of diseases, and the National Cancer Institute is using CRCs in studies of head, neck and genitourinary cancers.
“This new technology could provide a transformational, dynamic platform for personalized cancer therapy,” says Dr. Louis M. Weiner, director of Georgetown Lombardi.
While immortalized tumor cell lines did and still do exist, they have changed so much over the decades that researchers say they do not resemble natural cancer cells any more.
“Normal cell cultures for most organ systems can’t be established in the lab, so it wasn’t possible previously to compare normal and tumor cells directly,” Schlegel explains.
Schlegel and his research team, including GUMC researcher Xuefeng Lui, published their findings about CRCs in a 2012 paper published in the American Journal of Pathology.
The advance immediately was recognized for its potential to personalize cancer medicine.
The research teams also published a New England Journal of Medicine article in 2012 that demonstrated how the CRCs derived from normal and tumor cells of a 24-year-old man with a rare type of tumor allowed physicians to identify an effective therapy.
The man’s cells were used to screen potential treatments and in this way, the scientists were able to see which therapies were active against the tumor cells and less harmful to the normal cells.
“Our first clinical application utilizing this technique represents a powerful example of individualized medicine,” Schlegel said at the time.
But he cautioned, “It will take an army of researchers and solid science to figure out if this technique will be the advance we need to usher in a new era of personalized medicine."
Albanese also says much more work needs to be done before the Georgetown Method is ready to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“But with so many researchers excited about the potential of CRCs, validation should come soon,” he said.
Georgetown University has filed a patent application on the technology described in the research papers, with Schlegel and Liu listed as inventors on the patent.
The research described here was funded by a grant to Schlegel from the National Institutes of Health (R01 OD011168), a Department of Defense Prostate Synergistic Idea Development award and an RO1 National Cancer Institute grant (CA129003) to Albanese.