Immunotherapy, where doctors encourage the body’s own immune defence system to attack cancerous tumours, is becoming an increasingly popular form of cancer treatment. The findings from a new study are now reinforcing the theory that the immune defence system may have a key role to play in curing cancer.
The new research is attracting a good deal of attention because this is the first time it has been directly proven in cancer patients treated with immunotherapy that the body’s immune defence system affects the ‘selection’ of cancer cells. The phenomenon has only previously been described through laboratory tests on mice. The findings have recently been published in the respected journal Nature.
“The study demonstrates important interaction between the immune defence system and the cancer cells—a kind of ‘mini-evolution’, where the cancer cells are forced to divest themselves of the gene mutations that trigger a reaction in the immune defence system. This allows new cancer cells that do not feature these mutations to grow and develop,” explains Associate Professor Sine Reker Hadrup from the Section for Immunology and Vaccinology at DTU Vet.
The research is the work of Leiden University Medical Center and a team of researchers from Amsterdam. As a part of her studies, Sine Reker Hadrup was involved in analysing the immune defence system in the two patients included in the study while she was employed at Herlev Hospital.She has brought the experience gained from the study with her to her new job at DTU Vet,where the work of the team is focused on areas such as understanding how the immune defence system recognizes the different genetic mutations in cancer cells, and developing techniques to measure and understand the interaction between immune defence and genetic development.
T-cells can eliminate cancer cells
To carry out their assignment, researchers took immune cells from the patients’ blood and cultivated them together with the patients’ cancer cells. They then returned what are known as T-cells to the patients, resulting in the cancerous tumours either shrinking or disappearing completely. T-cells are a type of white blood cells that play a key role in the immune defence system, as they have the capacity to identify and eliminate cancer cells.
Sine Reker Hadrup emphasizes that the latest research will only benefit patients indirectly. This is because the findings do not describe a new treatment as such, rather a phenomenon it is important to be aware of when developing new treatments:
“If we can create a broad immune response with multiple points of attack, we have a greater chance of eliminating the cancer cells and curing the patient.”