Cancer research may have taken a huge leap forward as scientists have discovered a highly specialized form of treating each individual patient.
Scientists know that cancer cells mutate wildly within a patient’s body, but they discovered that they each have common mutations. These mutations could be fought off by specific immune cells.
Breakthrough cancer treatment demonstrated in study
Each cancer cells starts from the same trunk before developing into different types of branches. Scientists have found that certain immune cells are able to “chop the tree at the trunk rather than just pruning the branches,” Dr. Sergio Quezada told CNN.
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Results of the study, co-authored by Quezada, from the University College London’s Cancer Institute, were published Thursday by Science magazine. Cancer research has been held back for years because each cell in a tumor is not the same.
“The tumor is an evolving mass. Mutations change here and there. Mutations in one area of the tumor are usually different from mutations in other parts of the tumors,” Quezada said.
Fighting cancer is like hunting down criminals
Quezada says that fighting cancer is like the police chasing different kinds of criminals. “The body’s immune system acts as the police trying to tackle cancer, the criminals. Genetically diverse tumours are like a gang of hoodlums involved in different crimes — from robbery to smuggling. And the immune system struggles to keep on top of the cancer — just as it’s difficult for police when there’s so much going on,” he said.
“Our research shows that instead of aimlessly chasing crimes in different neighborhoods, we can give the police the information they need to get to the kingpin at the root of all organized crime — or the weak spot in a patient’s tumor — to wipe out the problem for good.”
The research means that two different types of treatment are possible. The first involves customized vaccines that will combat core mutations in an individual patient, and the second identifies which immune cells – known as T-cells – are able to fight these mutations before multiplying them in a laboratory.
According to Quezada its the “ultimate personalized form of therapy.” The process sound simple but it would be very challenging. “This would mean basically taking a cancer tumor, finding the trunk, and then designing a vaccine (to) inject in the patent,” he said. “The second approach is to ‘fish’ these cells — T-cells — that recognize the trunk, expand them outside the patient” and inject them in the body.
Obstacles remain before treatment can potentially roll out
It is hoped that human trials will start within five years as a result of the study. However it does not mean that a cure for the illness is just around the corner, as the potential treatment has several limitations.
First is “the speed at which you can generate personalized therapy,” Quezada said. “Some cancers go really fast.” It may take longer to develop a personalized vaccine than it does for the cancer to kill a patient.
Another is the expense of such a unique treatment. Quezada has not estimated the cost of the method, but believes it could be very expensive. “That’s going to be an important point of this discussion,” he said.
It is also important to note that the method will probably have more effect on certain types of cancer than others. Quezada believes that lung cancer and melanoma could respond well.
The research was carried out by 36 researchers from around the world, and was funded by Cancer Research UK and the Rosetrees Trust.
“It’s the most amazing collaboration I’ve ever worked on, Quezada said. “It’s been an amazing roller coaster.”