International Policy Digest

National Institutes of Health
Science /06 Feb 2020
02.06.20

Scientists Say a New Discovery Could Lead to a Treatment for All Cancers

Cancer. The mere word sends shivers down the spines of many for a good reason. The disease not only claims lives but also creates a significant financial hardship for millions. Finding a cure would transform the world.

Researchers at Cardiff University believe they may be on track to do precisely that. They discovered a method of killing various forms of cancer in laboratory tests. While scientists have not yet tested the techniques on humans, they believe it holds promise for the future.

What the Researchers Discovered

Your immune system is a remarkable thing. In addition to fending off viruses and bacteria, it also helps your body destroy cancer cells. However, it needs help in this endeavor, or people wouldn’t continue to die from the disease. Researchers at Cardiff discovered a T-cell, a type of immune cell inside people’s blood, that can attack cancer. This specialized cell “scans” the body continually for threats requiring elimination. Because it circulates in the bloodstream, it raises the potential to treat the disease regardless of where it occurs in the body.

T-cells have receptors on their surfaces that attune to chemical messages sent by the body. This particular cell responds to a molecule called MR1, which exists on the surface of every cell in your body. Researchers believe that MR1 flags the distorted metabolism occurring inside the cancerous tissue so that the T-cell can attack it. It does this while leaving the surrounding healthy cells untouched.

Why the Findings Are Significant

Physicians already use T-cells in the treatment of particular forms of cancer. For example, CAR-T therapy involves a living drug that genetically engineers the body’s T-cells to seek and destroy the disease. Unfortunately, while this protocol succeeds in treating some forms of the disease, like leukemia, it falls short when it comes to solid tumors.

Other protocols attack the metabolic processes by blocking key sources of cellular energy production. Cancer cells vastly increase the uptake of glucose when compared to their healthy counterparts. By altering the cellular metabolism to interrupt this process, researchers hope to destroy the problematic cells.

However, a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment doesn’t exist to date. The new findings promise to treat the broadest possible spectrum of cancer types.

How Would the Treatment Work in Practice?

When the new treatment moves to human trials, researchers will take a blood sample from the patient in question. They would then extract and genetically-modify the patient’s T-cells. After doctors reprogram the cells, they inject them back into the patient and let them work their magic.

The huge advantage of this treatment over some current protocols lies in minimizing adverse effects and patient discomfort. For example, patients who currently undergo radiation therapy can experience a host of unpleasant side effects, as the treatment targets healthy tissue too. Some patients experience blistering or peeling skin from the treatment, along with debilitating fatigue.

Chemotherapy, likewise, also creates adverse effects. While doctors use this regimen as adjuvant therapy to catch cells that may have migrated elsewhere, the drugs used can take a toll on self-esteem and energy. Many patients experience extreme nausea and vomiting along with a loss of appetite. Many lose their hair, which causes considerable psychological distress.

Targeted drugs, including small molecules and monoclonal antibodies, produce fewer toxic side effects. However, these can inspire drug tolerance and even prompt new genetic mutations that prove problematic. Surgery can be helpful for solid tumors, but the potential of cancer metastasizing to other parts of the body makes this intervention impossible in some cases.

The T-cell protocol discovered by Cardiff may or may not produce side effects. Because researchers have not yet tested the technique in humans, unforeseen factors could create a negative impact. However, based on the research to date, it’s possible many patients will experience little unpleasantness outside of the injection process. More significantly, it solves the problem of stray cancer cells navigating to other regions and causing a recurrence of the disease.

While peer reviewers note that it’s too early to know precisely how this treatment will work in human subjects, they agree it shows promise. For cancer patients hoping for more years with their loved ones, it represents a potential lifeline.

Care and Compassion for Cancer Patients

Virtually any movement toward finding a cure for this disease is something worth celebrating. Cancer has eluded scientists and taken lives for far too long, and a cure would be a monumental discovery. In the meantime, if someone you know has this disease, you might wonder how you can best support them. The most crucial factor is exercising sensitivity and empathy.

Every patient has a different experience, so don’t assume you know how the person feels — even if you are a survivor. Do say things like, “I’m here for you if you want to talk” or, “How do you feel?” Listening is crucial, and remember that some people are ruggedly independent. Don’t force your assistance on them. However, do offer to help them by running to the store, escorting them to appointments or watching their kids if they have little ones.

Researchers continue to prioritize cancer research. Hopefully, they will find a cure soon so that more lives are not lost to this debilitating disease.