What if our immune systems could recognize cancer cells as if they were waving little distress flags? Although that’s putting it in the simplest terms, something very close to that concept could mean a cure for cancers of all kinds could soon be on the horizon.
Scientists at Cardiff University in the UK found a new kind of T-cell receptor (TCR) molecule that can pinpoint cancer in cells as if they were waving little distress flags. What’s more, the receptors are the same in each person, meaning a “one-size-fits-all” treatment could be possible.
The cure could be a vast improvement on the current T-cell therapies called CAR-T. This type of therapy involves taking T-cells from patients with cancer and modifying them to recognize cancer cells. However, there are limitations in that each patient must have a custom personalized treatment. Worse, many cancers aren’t treatable, including solid tumors.
Professor Andrew Sewell, lead author on the study from Cardiff University's School of Medicine, said it was “highly unusual” to find a TCR with such broad cancer specificity and this raised the prospect of “universal” cancer therapy. #TechTuesday
— IMPACT Partnership (@impactstemcell) January 21, 2020
The lead author of the study, Professor Andrew Sewell, suggested the exciting potential of a universal cure.
“We hope this new TCR may provide us with a different route to target and destroy a wide range of cancers in all individuals,” said Sewell.
“Current TCR-based therapies can only be used in a minority of patients with a minority of cancers.
A new type of immune cell which kills most cancers has been discovered by #CardiffUni scientists, offering fresh hope of universal treatment for all patients.
— Cardiff University (@cardiffuni) January 20, 2020
Even better, the T-cells leave healthy cells alone. Thus, there is enormous potential, and it all came down to finding tiny molecules in our bodies that can communicate that cancer is present in a chemical sense.
The BBC reports:
“There’s a chance here to treat every patient,” researcher Prof Andrew Sewell told the BBC.
He added: “Previously nobody believed this could be possible.
“It raises the prospect of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ cancer treatment, a single type of T-cell that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population.”
A cell receptor molecule called MR1 is found on the surface of cancer cells and other cells in the body. Somehow, the MR1 is able to signal the new T-cell receptors when cancer is present, initiating an immune system response. The cancer cell is then killed, and the T-cell moves on like a microscopic trained cancer assassin.
The researchers are trying to determine the precise molecular mechanism involved. They suspect it may be related to a cell’s metabolism and how it changes when it becomes cancerous.
See the diagram from Cardiff University below:
Lab tests have shown the method can kill lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer cells.
Now the method will be refined and tested on patients possibly as soon as the end of the year after it is determined safe for humans. Sewell hopes that it may be more widely available in a few years.
The Telegraph reports the discovery came by accident:
“Researchers at Cardiff University were analyzing blood from a bank in Wales, looking for immune cells that could fight bacteria, when they found an entirely new type of T-cell.
That new immune cell carries a never-before-seen receptor which acts like a grappling hook, latching on to most human cancers, while ignoring healthy cells.”
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