Scientists just made a "game-changing" cancer discovery
Now, a new study from worldwide researchers found surface proteins in all cancer cells that may finally serve as an "Achilles heel" for future treatments. In one scenario, doctors could take a biopsy from a patient's tumour and work out which flags are present, allowing them to create precision attack on the cancer cells.
"As well as suggesting a new way to treat cancer, the research fills key gaps in our knowledge about the effects of the immune system on tumours", Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician.
The new research had shown there were potential immunotherapy targets from the "trunk" of the tree that are flagged up on all of a tumour's multiplying cells. Later mutations are not seen in all the cancer's cells, researchers said.
Once the proteins are isolated, potent immune system cells called T-cells can be employed as homing missiles to zero in on them and destroy the cancer. "And the immune system struggles to keep on top of the cancer - just as it's hard for police when there's so much going on", explained Dr. Quezada.
Scientists believe that the flags can only be found in the cancer cells, which would make them ideal targets for the immune system.
The problem is cancers are not made up of identical cells - they are a heavily mutated, genetic mess and samples at different sites within a tumour can look and behave very differently.
"Scientists have made a groundbreaking discovery in understanding how the genetic complexity of tumours can be recognised and exploited by the immune system, even when the disease is at its most advanced stages". In the other, the actual flags themselves could be used to develop a new vaccine to treat that specific form of cancer.
But now researchers from Harvard, MIT and University College London, have found that even as tumours mutate, they still produce distinct "flags", or antigens, which appear on the surface of all the tumour's cells.
Current treatments often fail to completely destroy the cancer cells because they evolve quickly, cunningly altering their makeup to evade drugs.
"I will be disappointed if we haven't treated a patient within two years".
Swanton is expecting to launch the first human trial in lung cancer patients in the next two to three years.
For all its genetic diversity, a tumor may yet display some common elements, antigens that reflect the tumor's early mutational history.
While the T cells have the ability to eradicate all cancer cells within a tumor, they are not always able to reach their goal.
While treatments that use the body's own defenses have proven effective in some cancers, such as melanoma, other forms of the disease are able to avoid being labeled as potentially harmful to the body.
Prof Charles Swanton, from the UCL Cancer Institute, said the new approach could improve survival significantly, adding: "It gives us as an Achilles' heel to go for".
Over the past few years, immunotherapies - treatments which harness the power of the immune system to fight cancer - have been making headlines around the world.