Scientists may have found a way to "train" the body's immune system to attack cancers at the source.
Cancer treatment research has made some huge leaps in the past few years, most notably in scientists’ genetic understanding of the disease and how the body’s immune system responds to it. According to a report from the BBC, a team of researchers from University College London may have finally discovered cancer’s “Achilles’ heel.”
One of the biggest problems with cancer is the body’s inability to slow the progression of the disease on its own. The study, funded by Cancer Research UK, could lead to a wide range of new treatments that could one day offer personalized therapies allowing a person’s immune system to go on the offensive and destroy cancer cells, even in more advanced cases.
The method, which was described in a study published in the journal Science, has yet to be tested and would likely be very expensive. But if it works, scientists say, it could usher in a new era of personalized cancer treatments that could begin attacking the disease within two years.
The major breakthrough came as researchers examined the DNA in cancer cells. The idea of enlisting the immune system to attack cancer cells is not a new one, but researchers simply believe they’ve been after the wrong target the whole time. A mass of cancer cells is frustratingly complex, and it has been nearly impossible for scientists to come up with a treatment that can address all of the different genetic factors driving tumor growth at once.
As cancer mutations become increasingly convoluted and varied, they spread out like branches from one main genetic tree trunk. This is known as cancer heterogeneity, and it is a thorn in the side of cancer researchers around the world. The breakthrough occurred when scientists learned that proteins sticking out from the trunk, or antigens, are changed as the DNA mutates.
According to Professor Charles Swanton, a researcher from the UCL Cancer Institute, “This is exciting. Now w can prioritize and target tumor antigens that are present in every cell – the Achilles heel of these highly complex cancers.”
Doctors hope to develop unique cancer vaccines that allow a person’s immune system to identify cancers and summon the most effective defenses against tumor growth. Scientists hope the breakthrough can lead to more effective treatments sometime in the near future.
A press release from Cancer Research UK describing the details of the study can be found here.