New Cancer Discovery Could Ramp Up Precision Medicine Efforts


Researchers from the University College London have published a groundbreaking report in Science describing a new way of identifying cancer cells within the body that may significantly improve upon the way current treatments target tumors. The study, which was conducted at the UCL Cancer Institute and funded by Cancer Research UK, piggy backs on work currently being done in the emerging field of immunotherapy, in which the body’s own immune system is trained to target and fight cancer cells. Many researchers point to immunotherapy as the future of cancer treatment. In an earlier report, the BBC calls immunotherapy “the most exciting field in cancer and probably in all of medicine right now.” Earlier this year President Obama launched a Cancer Moonshot project that relies heavily on advancing immunotherapy techniques to the point of having a viable cure for cancer.

The problem researchers are facing with immunotherapy efforts is how to train the body’s immune system to eradicate all cancer cells in the body when cancer cells, by their very nature, mutate regularly, creating hundreds of variations that the immune system would need to target. The body’s immune system has been shown to be capable of finding and destroying certain cancer cells, but finding a single target to train the immune system to look for that would be present in all cancer cells in the body has thus far alluded researchers.

Now, however, researchers from University College London believe they have found a common denominator that stays with cancer cells throughout their mutations, and that could likely be used as a focal point when training the immune system. Researchers have discovered a way of identifying antigens that will be present in the earliest cancer cells, as well as all subsequent mutated cells. Antigens are proteins that stick out of the surface of the cancer cell and can be targeted by the immune system. Swanson explains, “This is exciting. Now we can prioritize and target tumor antigens that are present in every cell – the Achilles heel of these highly complex cancers.”

The discovery is being called groundbreaking because it sheds light on how the immune system could be used to more effectively target cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone, however, the technique has not been tested on either humans or animals and debate is still ongoing as far as how to translate the new information into a treatment. Some are calling for personalized vaccines that would be created for each patient to teach the immune system to spot their cancer’s antigens. The second proposal is to “fish” for immune cells in the body that are already designed to target the target antigens, and then use those cells to grow more and insert them back into the body.

While the future for immunotherapy remains unclear, excitement is building around the new findings and funding is pouring in to continue research efforts. UCL researchers hope to have treatments based on their new findings available to test on patients within two years.

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