A groundbreaking treatment for cancer which uses immune cells from strangers could save millions of lives in the future, scientists believe.
The treatment, still in its early days, will strengthen the immune systems of patients while avoiding toxic side effects such as those caused by chemotherapy.
The team at the Francis Crick Institute in London now want to set-up the first ‘immune banks’ which will store the cells.
This would allow oncologists to order a batch of immune cells to be delivered to clinics in a matter of hours to then be infused into patients.
Once in the body the cells would join forces with the patient’s own immune system to fight off tumours using a natural ‘DIY’ approach.
A groundbreaking treatment for cancer which transplants disease-fighting immune cells, which attack cancer cells, into the body of a patient from a stranger could save millions of lives
Professor Adrian Hayday, group leader of the Immunosurveillance Lab at The Crick, told The Telegraph: ‘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.’
Professor Hayday added that ‘even a few years ago’ there was little belief cancer could be tackled in any other way than attacking the disease itself.
But now there is a growing field of research and experimental treatments focusing on training patients’ bodies to fight off cancers by themselves.
Experts say this could become more effective than traditional treatments because bodies can adapt faster than medicine companies.
Professor Hayday described the concept as ‘radical’ but added ‘that is what’s happening’ now, with the cells not doing anything other than ramping up the immune system.
Cancer patients will begin to receive pioneering infusions of the so-called natural killer cells as early as next year, according to the researchers.
Professor Charlie Swanton, of Crick’s Cancer Evolution and Genome Instability Laboratory said: ‘The future is incredibly bright.’
The treatment was developed by scientists, led by Professor Adrian Hayday, at the Francis Crick Institute in London
He added: ‘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.’
Until now, the idea of injecting someone’s immune cells into another person was dogged by fears the body would reject them.
But this year, in a medical breakthrough, scientists discovered they survive well in the body and are unlike other cells.
The Crick team are now seeing impressive results, particularly because the cells aren’t being rejected by the body, as is the case with some forms of immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy drugs help the immune system work harder to find and kill cancer cells. But there can be side effects because they attack healthy cells, too.
The treatment is said to be the ultimate ‘do-it-yourself approach’ because it uses the patient’s own immune system and relies on no drugs.
In England and Wales, survival rates for ten or more years after cancer are 50 per cent, according to Cancer Research UK.
The team at The Crick want to make that figure rise to 75 per cent in the next 15 years, and they claim advances in technology will make that possible.
In the US, the five-year survival rate for all cancers combined is improving, and was 69 per cent between 2007 to 2013, according to the American Cancer Society.
HOW DOES IMMUNOTHERAPY WORK?
Immunotherapy uses our immune system to fight cancer. It works by helping the immune system recognise and attack cancer cells.
Our immune system works to protect the body against infection, illness and disease. It can also protect us from the development of cancer.
The immune system includes the lymph glands, spleen and white blood cells. Normally, it can spot and destroy faulty cells in the body, stopping cancer developing. But a cancer might develop when:
- The immune system recognises cancer cells but it is not strong enough to kill the cancer cells
- The cancer cells produce signals that stop the immune system from attacking it
- The cancer cells hide or escape from the immune system
Immunotherapy is not yet as widely used as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy uses medication to kill cancer cells and radiotherapy means the use of radiation, usually X-rays, to treat illness.
Immunotherapy uses the natural power of your immune system to fight illnesses, and has been approved to treat people with many types of cancer.
There are different types of immunotherapy, some of which are also called targeted therapies or biological therapies.
Monoclonal antibodies (MABs)
Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system’s attack on cancer cells.
They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells. This process is called antibody dependent cell mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC).
Vaccines to treat cancer
Normally, vaccines help to protect us from disease, and researchers are looking at whether vaccines can be used as a treatment to help the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells.
When you have the vaccine, it stimulates the immune system into action. The immune system makes antibodies that can recognise and attack the harmless versions of the disease.
Once the body has made these antibodies it can recognise the disease if you come into contact with it again. So you’re protected from it.
Cytokines are a group of proteins in the body that play an important part in boosting the immune system.
Interferon and interleukin are types of cytokines found in the body. Scientists have developed man made versions of these to treat some types of cancer.
Adoptive cell transfer
Adoptive cell transfer changes the genes in a person’s white blood cells (T cells) to help them recognise and kill cancer cells. Changing the T cell in this way is called genetically engineering the T cell.
This treatment is only available as part of a clinical trial in the UK. An example of a type of adoptive cell transfer is CAR T-cell therapy.
Source: Cancer Research UK