Scientists have successfully managed to grow “vast quantities” of immune system cells that may be capable of fighting cancer.
The study focused on a type of white blood cell known as a cytotoxic T-cell. These cells naturally occur in small numbers and can recognise telltale markings of infection or cancer on the surface of cells. If a marking is recognised, it launches an attack. It is hoped that injecting huge quantities of T-cells back into a patient could help boost their immune system into fighting cancer cells.
Teams at the University of Tokyo and the Riken Research Centre for Allergy and Immunology used advances in stem cell technology to make more T-cells, with one group extracting T-cells which targeted a patient’s skin cancer. These were then converted into stem cells, which could dramatically increase in number when grown in the laboratory. They were then converted back into T-cells, which should also have the ability to target the cancer.
It must be emphasised that this Japanese study has only shown that we can make these cells, not that they make a difference to the disease or even can be safely put back into patients. However, as Dr Hiroshi Kawamoto, who worked on the cancer immune cells, said: “The next step will be to test whether these T-cells can selectively kill tumour cells, but not other cells in the body. If they do, these cells might be directly injected into patients for therapy. This could be realized in the not-so-distant future.”
While these findings are still at an early stage, experts in the field said the findings were encouraging. Professor Sir John Burn, from the Institute of Genetic Medicine at Newcastle University, said: “This is a very appealing concept and the research team are to be congratulated on demonstrating the feasibility of expanding these killer cells… [However] Even if these T-cells are effective, it could prove very challenging to produce large quantities safely and economically. Nevertheless, there is real promise of this becoming an alternative when conventional therapies have failed.”
Breast Cancer Campaign also comments that this research could “pave the way for new cancer treatments”, with Chief Executive Baroness Delyth Morgan noting: “Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer is a really exciting area of research, which we hope will lead us to vital new treatments with fewer side effects in the future.”
“Breast Cancer Campaign currently funds cutting-edge research which looks at how T-cells can be modified to attack cancer cells anywhere in the body. We hope that this research, which uses the immune system as a powerful weapon, can be tested in clinical trials with people diagnosed with breast cancer as soon as we have enough evidence to suggest that the treatment is safe and effective.”
“Trials are already underway to see how T-cells can treat other types of cancer, for example head and neck, and we are hoping these will show that using the immune system is a more specific way of targeting cancer cells whilst leaving the rest of the body unharmed.”