Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer could treat ‘all forms of the disease’

Cancer cells attacking healthy human cell 3d render.
One in two people born after 1960 in the UK will develop cancer at some point in their life. [Photo: Getty]

Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer could combat all forms of the disease, research suggests.

Scientists from Cardiff University believe a patient’s immune cells could be “programmed” in the laboratory to look for receptors on tumours.

When re-infused into the body, the immune cells “scan” for threats, which they promptly destroy.

Only tested in the laboratory to date, the approach killed prostate, breast and lung cancers to name a few.

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“There's a chance here to treat every patient,” study author Professor Andrew Sewell told the BBC.

“Previously nobody believed this could be possible.

“It raises the prospect of a 'one-size-fits-all' cancer treatment, a single type of cell that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population”.

One in two people born after 1960 in the UK will develop cancer at some point in their life, Cancer Research UK statistics show.

A patient’s prognosis varies drastically according to the type of the disease they have.

Many are forced to endure surgery, chemo and radiotherapy - with all their side effects - in an attempt to beat the malignant tumours.

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Our immune system is perhaps best known for fighting infections, but it also plays a role in warding off cancer.

Specific immune cells, known as T cells, contain receptors that interact with a molecule called MR1 - found on every cell surface in the human body.

MR1 is thought to “flag” when a cancerous change is occurring within a cell.

Although unclear exactly how T-cell therapy could help, its receptors may interact with the malignant cell, killing it off.

If shown to be safe, the treatment would involve taking a blood sample from a cancer patient.

Their T-cells would then be extracted and genetically altered to produce a “cancer-finding receptor” specific to the individual’s disease.

This alteration would occur by exposing the cells to a harmless virus containing genes that modify the cell’s ability to recognise and target tumours.

Modified cells would then be duplicated in the laboratory before being re-infused into the patient.

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This is not the first time an approach like this has been tried out.

Immunotherapy “uses the power of the immune system to prevent, control and eliminate cancer,” according to the Cancer Research Institute.

Perhaps the most famous form of immunotherapy, CAR-T involves engineering a patient’s T cells to destroy cancer.

This has brought about many success stories, taking patients from terminally ill to remission, according to the BBC.

Yet, it only works against specific cancers where there is clear receptor for the modified T cells to target.

It is also ineffective against sold tumours, as opposed to blood cancers like leukaemia.

Writing in the journal Nature Immunology, the Cardiff scientists found their approach killed off cancer cells from the lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, ovaries, kidneys, prostate and cervix in the laboratory.

It also left healthy tissues alone, suggesting a lower risk of side effects than conventional chemo or radiotherapy.

While it all sounds optimistic, experts caution it is early days.

Lucia Mori and Gennaro De Libero, from University of Basel, told the BBC the approach has “great potential”.

Daniel Davis, from the University of Manchester, added it is “very basic research and not close to actual medicines”.