Scotland on Sunday Sun 18 Jun 2006
Cancer 'switch' linked to repair of brain damage

THE early stages of cancer can be harnessed to repair brain damage in stroke victims, according to new research by a leading Scots scientist.

Professor Ron McKay, a stem cell expert from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Maryland, America, has found a biological "switch" that triggers cancer growth can also be used to grow brain cells.

He believes that by exploiting this process it will be possible to regenerate damaged brain tissue in patients who have suffered a stroke.

Stroke victims can be left with severe speech and movement problems by even mild attacks as their brains are starved of oxygen causing vital areas to die.

Normally, the brain is unable to repair itself, but McKay believes that by mimicking the early stages of cancer in brain cells, it will be possible to reverse the damage.

McKay, originally from Fife, has shown a key protein involved in activating tumour growth also causes stem cells, the basic building blocks of the body, to grow into brain cells and neurons.

He claims that by temporarily activating the protein - called Notch - in brain cells, he can get them to grow and multiply to patch damaged areas.

McKay revealed his findings at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

"The biology of regeneration and cancer biology look essentially the same," he said. "This is good as we already know a lot about cancer as it has been heavily researched. We are looking at promoting widespread regeneration of cells from the central nervous system by activating this signalling pathway.

"Essentially, we will be flipping a switch to make the cells produce a transient treatment. We can do this without causing cancer as you don't suddenly flip from being in the early stages into fully fledged tumour cell. By activating it temporarily, we can control the growth to regenerate parts of the brain."

McKay, who was the first scientist to grow stem cells from the nervous system, believes that by turning on Notch in brain stem cells, he can grown new tissue.

He has already shown that the process can occur in rats and is now planning to use stem cells taken from human embryos to study the process further. Ultimately, he hopes to identify a drug that can be given to stroke patients that will encourage their brains to repair themselves.

He said it could be up to another ten years before patients begin benefiting from such a treatment, and added: "It is vital research on stem cells continues so we can understand the biological processes behind disease."

In Scotland, more than 7,000 people a year suffer a stroke, but 80% of them will survive. Instead they can suffer crippling disabilities due to the damage caused to their brains.

Some patients regain movement as swelling in their brain caused by the stroke goes down, allowing the cells around the damaged area to start working again. Most require intensive physiotherapy as they attempt to learn how to walk and talk again.

A spokeswoman for the Stroke Association said:

"This is a really interesting piece of research. Obviously it has still got a long way to go before it can be used to help stroke survivors, but it will provide hope to many and their families."

McKay was visiting Scotland after being invited to deliver the Caledonian Research Foundation's prize lecture for 2006.

This article: News - Health - Cancer 'switch' linked to repair of brain damage

Last updated: 18-Jun-06 01:25 BST