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Immunotherapy – the future of cancer treatment?

Immunotherapy hit the headlines this week. A research team in the USA presented some encouraging, but very early stage results, suggesting immunotherapy’s promise of being the future of cancer treatment is a tiny step closer to becoming a reality.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

For over 20 years, researchers have been trying to find a way to awaken the immune system to cancer. They want to harness the body’s own cancer-killing mechanisms; an approach known as ‘immunotherapy’. Achieving this has proved extraordinarily difficult. Cancer stealth mechanisms are sophisticated, and the immune system is a powerful thing. You have to be careful about which levers to pull if you are to avoid killing the person as well as the cancer.

This week at a conference in Washington, DC in the USA, researchers presented their exciting, but very early stage findings. They developed a treatment by removing special immune system cells from the blood cancer patients.  They then re-programmed these cells into cancer fighting machines, before injecting them back into the patients. This type of reprogrammed cell is called a Chimaeric Antigen Receptor T-cell or CAR T-cell for short.  These latest findings are yet to be published in a scientific journal and scrutinised by fellow researchers. But they did provide evidence that their immunotherapy treatment had shown exciting results.  Some unique blood cancer patients, for whom all other treatments had failed, even seemed to have entered remission with is extremely exciting.

Not all news is good news

However, there were some severe side-effects for a small number of patients.  These resulted in admissions to intensive care or, in a couple of extreme cases, patients had died. This just proves how powerful the immune system is. Tinkering with it cannot be taken lightly.

Worldwide Cancer Research’s contribution to CAR T-cell treatments

Although not involved directly in this work presented in the USA, we have previously funded a wide range of immunotherapy projects. For example in 2008 we gave Professor John Maher of King’s College London a grant to develop a CAR T-cell immunotherapy for head and neck cancer.  This is a type of cancer which can be aggressive and difficult to treat. By reprogramming immune cells in the laboratory, he aimed to help them 'home in' on tumours when put back into the patients. His project was very successful and following on from this, he recently started a clinical trial testing this therapy in patients.

Hope for men with prostate cancer

We gave him a second grant which started in December 2013 to develop a similar technology for prostate cancer. Professor Maher is specifically looking at prostate cancer in men where the cancer cells have stopped responding to the usual drugs and have spread to other parts of the body.  This is known as metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC). For these men there are few treatment options remaining, so new ones are urgently needed. In the laboratory, Professor Maher is genetically altering T cells that specifically recognise prostate cancer cells, taken from men with mCRPC. He will then inject a large number of these altered T cells into mice with prostate tumours.

Once the T cells stick to a prostate cancer cell, they are designed to make genes which help the body destroy the cancer cells, whilst leaving healthy cells unharmed. The team hope that one of these genes will also ensure that the T-cells can produce more T-cells. Depending on his findings in mice, Professor Maher is hoping that his T-cells could be used in a human clinical trial in the next few years.

Immunotherapy getting closer to reality

We have been supporting immunotherapy continuously, throughout its ups and downs, for more than 15 years. We knew the scientific theory behind immunotherapy was sound, that its potential was enormous, and that progress, however slow, would eventually come. Clinical trials are producing success stories and we are hopeful there will be more from the clinical trials underway thanks to research we funded.

Immunotherapy continues to be a strong presence in our research programme today. It is not an overstatement to say that immunotherapy has the potential to transform the way cancer is treated, possibly even in our lifetimes. We are delighted that Worldwide Cancer Research is playing its part.

Written by Dr Lara Bennett and Dr Gwen Wathne

You can read more about what an immunologist gets up to in a previous 'Day in the Life' blog post.

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