A new method of cancer treatment revealed that targets its weaknesses…
In 2012 Cancer Research UK reported 161,823 deaths from cancer in the UK alone. In the same year, globally there were 14.1 million cases of cancer and 8.2 million deaths. The future seems to be just as bleak with Macmillan warning that by 2020 almost half of the population will get cancer at some stage in their life.
Therefore a successful cancer treatment would be very welcome and have a radical impact upon both current and future generations. This week in the journal Science a weakness of cancer has been revealed which could prove vital in cancer treatment. The research funded by Cancer Research UK and was carried out by an international team from some of the world’s best universities; Harvard, MIT and University College London.
As tumours develop they evolve and change in complexity. Professor Charles Swanton of the UCL Cancer Institute used the analogy of a tree to describe cancer. There is a core section, like a tree trunk, and then mutations that branch off in all directions. This overall combination of different cells is referred to as cancer heterogeneity. The result of the heterogeneity means the tumour becomes difficult for the immune system to attack.
However, each part of the tumour carries features from its original state. These act like markers or flags on the cancer cell surface which a small number of the body’s immune cells may recognise. The method proposed by these researchers suggests that immune cells could be isolated, artificially multiplied in the laboratory and then reintroduced back into the patients in order to destroy their tumours. By combining this method with drugs that harness the immune system, the researchers propose these cells could lead to targeted and personalised cancer treatments in the future. The use of the immune cells in treatment is termed ‘immunotherapy’.
Other experts have agreed that the proposed method does make sense, however, it could be more complex when put into practice. Also, the treatment would be expensive and has not yet been tested in animals, let alone in patients. Therefore, there is a risk that the method may not work. Additionally, even if it was successful, it would be a slow procedure – taking more than a year from start to finish in a single patient.
The treatment is only in its early stages but if successful it could revolutionise future treatments. It has been described by David Adams, a cancer geneticist at the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute, as ‘the epitome of personalised therapy’.
Photo: Dr. Raowf Guirguis. National Cancer Institute