Potential 'game-changing' discovery for cancer patients announced today

Scientists have found a way to up the body's immune system defence mechanisms

Cancer, treatment, t cells, US, research, breakthrough, Stanley Riddell, Fred Hutchinson, Cancer Research Center

Image: YouTube/Fred Hutch

Scientists have made what they are be describing as a game-changing discovery which could lead to patients fighting cancer using their own immune systems.

For the first time they have identified a biological signature found on the surface of every cell in a patient's tumour - as well as immune 'killer' cells that are able to zero in on the signature.

Instead of being given toxic chemotherapy, patients could in future be given vaccines made from proteins in their own tumours that activate the immune system to wage war on the cancer and because only the tumour cells have the biological signature, healthy tissue will not be attacked by the immune response.

Dr Sergio Quezada, one of the lead researchers, told Sky News: "What we hope for is stronger, more powerful responses with much lower toxicity - or no toxicity, hopefully. The logic of the treatment is that the (treatment) response should be much more specific than anything tried so far. It is a game changer for cancer."

Cancer has potent defences. It continues to evolve as it grows, allowing it to become resistant to existing chemotherapy drugs and it also has the ability to switch-off T-cells, the assassins of the immune system. In effect the tumour becomes invisible to the body's natural defences. But the new research suggests it is possible to overcome the problems.

Scientists at University College London's Cancer Institute said they were confident they could reactivate the T-cells and then trigger an immune response that overwhelms the tumour, destroying it.

Professor Charles Swanton, another leading member of the Cancer Research UK-funded team, said: "I will be disappointed if we haven't treated a patient within two years. I hope this is going to result in improvements in survival outcomes."

They also believe the immune response could last for life. Many patients currently endure a relapse of their disease, each time undergoing a new round of treatment. But because the immune system has a long memory, the activated T-cells will remain on guard, killing any tumour cells that reappear.

Tony Selman beat prostate cancer, but lives with treatment side-effects including damage to his bladder and bowel. He said he had high hopes that the new immune treatment would be the beginning of the end for toxic therapy: "You are very tired, you may have periods of sickness and you may have periods of your stomach being severely upset. If we could find a therapy that had the same effect of radiotherapy and hormone (chemo)therapy without causing the trouble that present therapies do, that would be marvellous."