LONDON — Scientists have discovered a breakthrough treatment to fight cancer, and claim the disease will no longer be deadly for future generations.
Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London believe it is possible to strengthen the body’s defences by transplanting immune cells from strangers. Patients will begin to receive the new treatment next year, and the team now wants to establish “immune banks” to store disease-fighting cells.
Prof Adrian Hayday, an immunology expert and group leader of the immunosurveillance laboratory at The Crick, said scientists and doctors could become more like engineers, upgrading the body rather than bombarding it with toxic chemotherapy.
“Using the immune system to fight cancer is the ultimate do-it-yourself approach,” he said.
“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.
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“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.
“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.
“We’re not quite there yet. But that’s what we’re trying now. There is every capability of getting cell banks like this established.”
Until this year, scientists thought it would be impossible to import a stranger’s immune cells as the immunosuppressant drugs needed to ensure the body did not reject them, would cancel out the benefits. But in 2018, scientists realized that immune cells are unlike other cells, and can survive well in another person, opening the door to transplants.
More than 350,000 people are diagnosed with cancer each year, and 30 years ago just one in four people would have survived for 10 years.
But radical advances over the past decade have seen the number of people surviving for at least a decade rise to 50 per cent and the team at The Crick want to make that 75 per cent in the next 15 years.
Prof Charlie Swanton, of the Cancer Evolution and Genome Instability Laboratory, said that the ability now to sequence tumours was heralding a new era of medicine tailor-made for a patient.
“It’s a very exciting time. The technology available to us now is just incredible. We’re able to sequence the genome of a tumour, understand its micro-environment, how it metabolises, what cells are controlling the tumour, and how those can be manipulated. Using the body’s own immune cells to target the tumour is elegant because tumours 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.”
Tumours evolve in a branched way, like trees, but scientists have recently found immune cells in their “trunks”, which could be crucial to battling the disease from the base up.
We might reach a point, maybe 20 years from now, where the vast majorities of cancers are rapidly treated diseases
Next year, Prof Swanton’s team is beginning trials to see if ramping up those specific cells could be effective in fighting lung cancer. He added: “We will be expanding those immune cells from the patient’s tumour in the lab and giving them back to the patient in hopefully overwhelming numbers to tackle the tumour at its trunk.
“It’s personalised medicine taken to the absolute extreme. Each patients have a unique therapy, it’s pretty much impossible to have the same treatment because no two tumours are the same.”
The team is also studying a group of people known as “elite controllers”, who have genetic mutations that prevent them developing cancer. In mice which have been genetically engineered to have the same mutations, it is almost impossible to induce skin cancer.
“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,” added Prof Hayday.
“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.
“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.
“Between 1980 and 2010, 519,000 cancer deaths were avoided because of cancer research. If that’s not a note for optimism I don’t know what is.”
Prof Swanton added: “Bear in mind 30 years ago that was one in four so survival has doubled in my lifetime and I think it will double again over the next 30 years. The future is incredibly bright.”