Cancer is a complex, multi-headed beast, an umbrella of over 200 different afflictions. Thankfully, from using artificial viruses on the one hand to wielding CRISPR on the other, science is going full-out to defeat this ancient biological malevolent malfunction.
A new study, courtesy of a team led by Stanford Medicine (SM), places its bets on immunotherapy, a rapidly growing field that – unlike conventional chemotherapy – triggers the patient’s own immune system to deal with the cancer itself. Generally speaking, immunotherapy is more precise, whereas chemotherapy targets cells somewhat indiscriminately.
For this work, the team used two immune-stimulating agents, injected in small quantities directly into the tumors of mice. They found that it not only completely destroyed these tumors, but it also eliminated all elements of the cancer in the mice, even in parts of the body that the cancer had metastasized (spread) to long ago.
Writing in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the authors note that “it has recently become apparent that the immune system can cure cancer.” Clearly, great advances are being made: they conclude that, at least in mice, their new technique can “cure multiple types of cancer and prevent spontaneous genetically driven cancers.”
So what exactly are these two agents of which they speak, and what do they do?
As with plenty of immunotherapy investigations, the focus here was on stimulating the body’s T cells. These are lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that plays a huge role in dealing with infections. They come in two flavors, helpers and killers, with the former assisting in the development of antibodies – the “handcuffs” that pin pathogens down – and the latter actually annihilating damaged or infected cells.
These T cells are excellent at spotting and dealing with abnormal cells, but they have some difficulty when it comes to cancerous cells. As they’re corrupted versions of our own cells, this means that they’re somewhat camouflaged. Even when the T cells do recognize the growing threat, they are often unable to destroy it as it proliferates through the body.
This new technique tries to tackle both the identification and the eradication problem in one fell swoop.