Scientists at Cardiff University have taken a major step in cancer cure research. They reported their discovery this week in a publication in the magazine Nature Immunology.
The researchers have found a variant of the so-called T-cell that could recognize multiple forms of cancer, including breast and lung cancer. Isolating the receptor responsible for recognition and subsequently placing this receptor in other T cells can in the future lead to a product that can treat many cancer patients.
Much progress has been made in recent years in the field of cellular therapy. Thanks to T cells, certain forms of cancer can already be treated, but so far it has only been cancer that occurs in the blood, such as leukemia.
T cells are immune cells that are part of the human immune system. If these are isolated from the blood and then modified and placed back in the body, they can recognize or even eliminate specific proteins or antigens if these cells are malignant. This is called CAR-T immunotherapy.
CAR-T can change cancer from deadly to chronic disease
This CAR-T therapy can change certain types of cancer from a fatal to a chronic illness. The newly discovered T cell may also detect cancerous forms in the tissue, such as lung, breast, or prostate cancer. This has not been possible until now.
“It is a major step in cancer treatment research,” acknowledged oncologist John Haanen of the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI), the research institute of the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Haanen investigates, among other things, the potential of T-cell therapy in patients with metastatic skin cancer. In an exploratory study, 5 patients each receive a tailor-made set of T cells that specifically recognize their tumor
His institute recently received a so-called ZonMw grant to develop such a T-cell therapy. “But there are still a lot of bees and buts. The new T cells have only been tested on mice for the time being. It even takes years before it can be tested whether this therapy can also work for humans.”
Cancer types with the highest chance of cure
- Skin cancer (squamous cell carcinoma): 94 percent
- Skin cancer (melanoma): 92 percent
- Prostate cancer: 89 percent
- Breast cancer (invasive): 88 percent
- Uterine cancer: 79 percent
“Safety comes first, you don’t want to destroy healthy cells”
Safety is paramount, Haanen emphasizes. “You must know for sure that the receptors that are placed in the T cells only recognize and switch off the malignant cells, and not the healthy ones,” he explains. “If good proteins are also recognized and destroyed, then that can have very bad consequences for the patient. But under that explicit reservation, you can indeed speak of a major breakthrough.”
Two thirds of the patients diagnosed with cancer in 2013 were still alive five years later, according to new figures from the Dutch Cancer Registry on Monday. In the last five years, the chance of survival of people who get cancer has increased by about 1 percentage point each year.
Because the disease is detected faster and is treated more effectively thanks to new treatment methods, so-called five-year survival is increasing, according to the Integraal Kankercentrum Nederland (IKNL). At the start of the polls in 1989, 43 percent of patients were still alive five years later.
The chance of cancer surviving increases every year
Especially people with breast, prostate, (esophagus) colon or kidney cancer see their chances of healing increasing. The chance of a cure for many types of blood and lymph node cancer is also increasing. There are positive outliers among prostate cancer patients. Almost 90 percent of that group is still alive five years after the diagnosis is made; an increase of 27 percentage points compared to the first survey.
These figures also apply explicitly to cancer patients in the western world. The costs of this type of cell therapy are high; one treatment currently costs around 4 tonnes. Oncologist Haanen suspects that this price will fall if the treatment can be used more widely.
Cancer types with the lowest chance of cure
- Pancreatic cancer: 5 percent (2 percent in 1990)
- Lung cancer: 21 percent (12 percent in 1990)
- Esophageal cancer: 23 percent (8 percent in 1990)
- Brain tumor: 24 percent (18 percent in 1990)
- Stomach cancer (excluding cardiac cancer): 25 percent (23 percent in 1990)