In a recent breakthrough, scientists have demonstrated how the immune system can recognize the genetic complexity of tumors and exploit them, even when the disease has advanced to critical stages. Funded by the Cancer Research UK and the Rosetrees Trust, the research shows potential to lead future immunotherapies and help improve existing immunotherapeutic drugs.

Cancer And Immune System

Co-author Dr Sergio Quezada, a scientist at the Cancer Research UK and head of the Immune Regulation and Cancer Immunotherapy lab at UCL Cancer Institute, explained that the body’s immune system is like the ‘police’, handling cancer like outlaws. Genetically diverse tumors, he said, were like a gang of criminals involved in various crimes, making it difficult for the immune system to keep a check on their progression.

The genetic diversity of cancer arises when cancers evolved in a branched fashion. The earliest faults are identified in all cells, which form the ‘trunk’ of the disease, whereas later mutations arise in some but not all cells. This branched manner is what allows the disease to adapt and develop resistance against drugs.

Making The Discovery

As a tumor evolves, the diversity of its genetic anomalies is generally flagged on the cell surface with the development of novel mutations in various parts of the cancerous tumor. After a thorough analysis of existing data obtained from hundreds of patients, researchers assessed that certain flags – scientifically known as antigens – represent some of the earliest mutations of the disease, and are displayed on all tumor cells rather than a certain specific group.

This was followed by the isolation of specialized immune cells called T-cells from the samples of two patients having lung cancer. These cells are capable of recognizing common flags displayed on tumor cells. Although T-cells are equipped to eradicate all cancerous cells present within a tumor, they are turned off by the tumor’s defenses during disease progression.

Importance Of The Findings: Treatment For Tumors

These findings pave the way for future therapies to focus on specifically activating T-cells that target all tumor cells simultaneously based on their genetic signature. Using the information in the study, scientists could also develop therapeutic vaccines that activate T-cells. Moreover, they could harvest, grow or administer T-cells that recognize common antigens back into a patient’s system.

“Instead of meaninglessly pursuing crimes (cancer cells) in different neighborhoods, we could give the police (T-cells) the required information to reach the kingpin at the root of all organized crime, or at least the weak spot in a patient’s tumor, in order to wipe out the problem once and for all”, stated the researchers.

According to Professor Charles Swanton, co-author from the UCL Cancer Institute and a scientist at the Francis Crick Institute, evidence did exist about how the complexity of tumors could increase its chances of being spotted by the immune system. However, we can now prioritize and target specific antigens present in every cell.

“Apart from suggesting unique ways to treat cancer, the research fills in the gaps in previous findings about the effects of the immune system on tumors.

Future Prospects

These essential findings open avenues into various new scientific and medical aspects, some of which have been highlighted below:

  • A novel way to look into a patient’s tumor profile and all antigenic variations for assessing the best immunotherapy therapy to be given.
  • Prioritizing antigens found in all tumor cells and identifying specific T-cells that recognize them.
  • An opportunity to personalize medicine – unique, bespoke treatment for all.
  • Guide the immune system to specifically target and attack tumors.
  • Pursue studies into why certain patients respond well to immunotherapy while others don’t, with a chance to then administer selective treatment.

This research provides hope for developing better treatments for cancers that were previously the hardest to treat.

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