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Scientists have discovered cancer’s ‘Achilles heel’

New research could help train the immune system to target tumours.

T-cell
T-cell
Image: UCL

SCIENTISTS AT UNIVERSITY College London (UCL) have made a potentially groundbreaking discovery in cancer research.

UCL has said the findings help understand how the immune system can fight back against tumours “even when the disease is at its most advanced stages“.

The researchers isolated specialised immune cells, called T-cells, from samples of two patients with lung cancer that can recognise common flags present on every tumour cell.

The study, which was funded by Cancer Research UK and the Rosetrees Trust, was published in Science. UCL said it paves the way for therapies that specifically activate these T-cells to target all the tumour cells at once based on the disease’s genetic signature.

Professor Charles Swanton, co-author of the report, said: “This is exciting. There was evidence that complex tumours with many mutations could increase the chance of the immune system spotting them; now we can prioritise and target tumour antigens (substances that cause an immune system to produce antibodies against it) that are present in every cell, the Achilles heel of these highly complex cancers.

This is really fascinating, and takes personalised medicine to its absolute limit where each patient would have a unique, bespoke treatment.

‘Wipe out the problem for good’

Dr Sergio Quezada, fellow co-author, added: “The body’s immune system acts as the police trying to tackle cancer, the criminals. Genetically diverse tumours are like a gang of hoodlums involved in different crimes – from robbery to smuggling. And the immune system struggles to keep on top of the cancer – just as it’s difficult for police when there’s so much going on.

Our research shows that instead of aimlessly chasing crimes in different neighbourhoods, we can give the police the information they need to get to the kingpin at the root of all organised crime – or the weak spot in a patient’s tumour – to wipe out the problem for good.

Last month, a cancer study in the US was hailed for its “extraordinary results”.

Some 35 people, 94% of participants in one study, with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia saw symptoms vanish completely. Patients with other blood cancers had response rates greater than 80%, and more than half experienced complete remission.

Read: ‘Extraordinary’ cancer trial sees symptoms vanish in 94% of patients

Read: ‘Three weeks after giving birth I was diagnosed with breast cancer’

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Órla Ryan

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