Cancer Research UK has today announced a breakthrough that could theoretically lead to a new treatment for some cancers within the next five years.
Newly-published research into the genetics of tumour formation suggests that even rapidly mutating cancers may carry a number of common “markers” that the immune system can be primed to recognise and attack.
The markers are surface proteins unique to all the cancer cells in a patient and so could open the way for new therapies that rely on vaccines to target the disease. Charles Swanton, leader of the latest study at the Francis Crick Institute (London) goes as far as describing the proteins an “Achilles heel” for cancer.
One potential treatment hinges on the fact that the body’s immune system actually launches an, albeit underwhelming, attack on cancers. The cancer-targeting immune cells are effective but they are swamped by the rapid growth of the cancer.
Examination of tumours found these immune cells buried within them. These cells could potentially be multiplied in the lab and re-introduced to the patient.
Alternatively, the surface protein markers could be identified and used to create a vaccine.
This is all immensely exciting – but it’s also very expensive.
If the process can be shown to create a functional vaccine, it would only affect the tumours in a single patient. Also, the treatment is only likely to work against the most rapidly-mutating cancers – such as lung cancer and melanoma. Finally, not all patients respond to immunotherapy-based treatments.
Whether or not this yields a mainstream treatment – at least it’s another chink in the armour of cancer, which is certainly to be celebrated.