British researchers have unveiled a revolutionary new cancer treatment that may effectively fight the disease. Scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London have found that cancer patients may benefit from transplanted cells that could rid the body of deadly cancer cells.
Test groups will begin receiving the new treatment this year. The scientists hope to establish “immune banks” to stock cancer-fighting cells from donors. Professor Adrian Hayday, an immunology expert and head of the immunosurveillance laboratory at The Crick, says researchers and doctors would act as engineers, strengthening the body’s natural defense mechanisms rather than using chemotherapy, which relies upon intracellular poisons to reduce mitosis or cell division.
“Using the immune system to fight cancer is the ultimate do-it-yourself approach,” Hayday says. “Even a few years ago the notion that any clinician would look at a patient and deliver a therapy which wasn’t going to directly affect the cancer in any way, shape or form, would have been pretty radical. But that’s what’s happening."
“We’re seeing impressive results with cells called natural killer cells. It’s very early days but there are patients receiving them in this next year and the year after, and the nice feature is, unlike other immunotherapy, these cells aren’t rejected,” he adds. “So you have the possibility of developing cell banks that could be used for anyone. You would call them up and deliver them to the clinic just hours before they were needed to be infused.”
Until last year, researchers believed that importing a stranger’s immune cells would also require injecting immunosuppressant drugs, so the body would not reject them. This process, however, would render the cells useless. Yet in 2018, scientists found that unlike other cells, immune cells can survive when transplanted from one person to another.
Every year, more than 350,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. Only 30 years ago, the survival rate for people diagnosed with the disease was 25 percent. Over the past decade, however, the number of cancer survivors has risen to 50 percent. The team at The Crick hope to increase that rate to 75 percent in the next 15 years.
Professor Charlie Swanton, Chief Clinician of Cancer Research UK, says that the capacity to sequence tumors has made customized treatments for each patient possible. “It’s a very exciting time. The technology available to us now is just incredible. We’re able to sequence the genome of a tumor, understand its micro-environment, how it metabolizes, what cells are controlling the tumor, and how those can be manipulated. Using the body’s own immune cells to target the tumor is elegant because tumors evolve so quickly there is no way a pharmaceutical company can keep up with it, but the immune system has been evolving for over four billion years to do just that,” he says.
Tumors branch out like trees yet scientists have recently discovered immune cells in their “trunks,” making it possible to fight the disease at its base. The new findings could mean that in 20 years, most cancers would be treatable. This year, Swanton’s team will start trials to determine if increasing the number of immune cells may be effective in battling lung cancer.
“We will be expanding those immune cells from the patient’s tumor in the lab and giving them back to the patient in hopefully overwhelming numbers to tackle the tumor at its trunk,” Swanton says. “It’s personalized medicine taken to the absolute extreme. Each patient has a unique therapy, it’s pretty much impossible to have the same treatment because no two tumors are the same.”
The research team is currently analyzing a group of people known as “elite controllers,” who possess genetic mutations that preclude them getting cancer. For example, it is nearly impossible to bring about skin cancer in mice that are genetically engineered to foster the same mutations.
“One of the pivotal breakthroughs in HIV was the recognition of people with elite controllers who had mutations in receptors which rendered them resistant to infection and that changed the landscape utterly,” Hayday says.
“We have a group in Sardinia who have a conspicuously low rate of cancers. Despite the suffering that continues to plague the oncology wards, the family, the friends, the basis for optimism is extraordinary,” he adds. “I would go so far as to say that we might reach a point, maybe 20 years from now, where the vast majorities of cancers are rapidly treated diseases or long-term chronic issues that you can manage. And I think the immune system will be essential in doing that.”
Hayday points to the fact that between 1980 and 2010, 519,000 cancer deaths were prevented thanks to cancer research, a sign that many advances are yet to come. The team is hopeful that just as the survival rate has doubled in the past 30 years that it will double again in the next 30 years.