When cancer hits, your immune system shuts down. Over the past 5–10 years, research into cancer has therefore increasingly focused on helping the immune system start up again. Because if we succeed in that, there is much to indicate that this approach will prove significantly more effective than the aggressive, all encompassing chemotherapy treatments we currently use.
One of the initiatives in this area is the work of Professor Thomas Andresen fromDTU Nanotech. He has recently been awarded a grant from Innovation Fund Denmark for a project in which biological nano-drones are used to train the immune system to recognize cancer cells; and kill them.
This is something it cannot do on its own, because cancer cells are adept at concealing themselves. It is true that when chemotherapy or radiotherapy is used to kill cancer cells today, the immune system steps in afterwards to clear away the dead cells, but it doesn’t learn anything from the process. This is what Thomas Andresen is looking to change.
“The strategy is for us to start by using radiation therapy to kill a small number of cancer cells. While the immune system is working to clear up after the attack, we send in our drones, which emit substances that place the immune system in ‘emergency response mode’. It then orders the body’s T-cells to attack the cancer cells. And because cancer cells are slightly different to other cells in the body, we can make them react to specific proteins on the surface of these cells, so only the hazardous cells are targeted,” explains Thomas Andersen.
“The development in immunotherapy we are currently witnessing is a huge leap forward in relation to what we have achieved previously. We are now seeing terminal patients, who have otherwise resigned themselves to their fate, suddenly being cured. ”
Mice vaccinated against cancer
The method has initially been tested on mice. The findings from these tests revealed that around 70 per cent that had been infected with cancer were cured. But that was not all. It proved impossible to reintroduce cancer into any of the mice that had been cured. Their immune system had been improved to the extent that the mice were actually vaccinated against cancer.It is now a question of developing and testing the method so that it can also be used on people. Because even though the mice seemed relatively unaffected by the tests, and many of them were cured of the disease, there is still not enough data available to allow the method to be transferred to human subjects. This is where the grant from Innovation Fund Denmark comes into play, and Thomas Andresen is counting on being ready to start clinical trials when the project expires four years from now.
There are several types of cancer therapy that use the immune system in one way or another, and all kinds of eye-catching results have been presented. That is why Thomas Andresen is much more optimistic on patients’ behalf than ever before in a career stretching back over 20 years:
“In the field of cancer research, we have seen many examples over the years of a situation in which we thought we had made a major breakthrough, but where the effect proved less impressive than expected. We have generated results that have made the treatment slightly more effective, and we have gradually become much better at treating cancer. However, the development in immunotherapy we are currently witnessing is a huge leap forward in relation to what we have achieved previously. We are now seeing terminal patients, who have otherwise resigned themselves to their fate, suddenly being cured. This is something we’ve hardly ever seen before. And I think it’s just the beginning …”