Researchers have discovered a unique marker present in every tumour that could revolutionise the way cancer is treated.
The marker, which appears in the form of surface proteins, remains even as tumours develop and grow more complex. Researchers say it could lead to treatments primed to attack every single cancer cell.
Scientists from Harvard, MIT and University College London, found in the patients they studied that some immune cells had spotted the cancer’s unique ‘flags’ but had been overwhelmed by the cancer’s defences.
Professor Charles Swanton, who led the study at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said the discovery provided an ‘Achilles heel’ for future therapies to target.
‘What we’ve found for the first time is that tumours essentially sow the seeds of their own destruction. And that within tumours, there are immune cells that recognise those flags which are present in every tumour cell,’ Swanton said.
In theory the protein markers could be used to make a cancer vaccine. Or, alternatively, the immune cells that spot the markers could be multiplied in a lab and re-infused into a patient, unleashing a precision attack on cancer cells.
Swanton, whose study was published in Science, said he hoped to launched a human trial on patients with lung cancer within the next two or three years.
This study has understandably made the headlines as this has the potential to be a huge breakthrough in the future treatment of cancer, with the possible holy grail of individualised cancer treatment now being on the horizon.
However, it is a huge step from research to large-scale patient trials and these are the next step before we will be able to see if this promise can be realised. If this does indeed prove to be the case though, then individual genetic treatment and true personal therapy becomes one step closer.
Exciting as this prospect is, it will be at least one to two years as a minimum before we can start to see if this is the huge breakthrough we all hope for, or a false dawn — although the initial evidence here is certainly strong.
Research score: 4/5