In Depth

Cancer immune cell: what have scientists discovered?

Researchers say newly found T-cell appears to target multiple forms of the deadly disease

The discovery of a killer cell in the human immune system could lead to a “one-size-fits-all” cancer treatment, according to a newly published study.

The team of Cardiff University researchers who made the find say the T-cell has already been used in lab tests to attack and destroy prostate, breast, lung and other cancer cells.

Although no tests have been conducted yet on human patients, scientists say the findings - outlined in a newly published paper in the journal Nature Immunology - have “enormous potential”, the BBC reports. 

What have the researchers found?

One of the most groundbreaking advances in the fight against cancer in recent years is a treatment known as CAR-T immunotherapy. This therapy involves “harvesting a patient’s immune T-cells and reprogramming them to target specific proteins found on the patient’s cancer cells”, while leaving healthy cells undamaged, explains science news site New Atlas.

However, a major limitation facing researchers of CAR-T therapies has been the lack of a universal T-cell receptor (TCR) that can target different kinds of cancers in all patients.

But the T-cell discovered by the Welsh university team appears to be equipped with a new type of TCR that does exactly that.

This T-cell “recognises a molecule present on the surface of a wide range of cancer cells, and normal cells, and is able to distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells - killing only the latter”, The Independent reports.

In lab tests on mice and human cells, the T-cells equipped with the new TCR has been found to kill lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer cells.

And the reaction?

“If these sorts of effects can be replicated in humans,” says ScienceAlert, “we could be looking at a bright new future for T-cell treatments.”

According to Wales Online, experiments are under way to determine the precise molecular mechanism by which the new TCR distinguishes between healthy cells and cancer, and researchers hope to begin human patients towards the end of this year following further safety testing.

Cardiff University professor Awen Gallimore, a cancer immunology lead for the Wales Cancer Research Centre, said: “If this transformative new finding holds up, it will lay the foundation for a universal T-cell medicine, mitigating against the tremendous costs associated with the identification, generation and manufacture of personalised T-cells.

“This is truly exciting and potentially a great step forward for the accessibility of cancer immunotherapy.”

Alasdair Rankin of blood cancer charity Bloodwise added: “This research represents a new way of targeting cancer cells that is really quite exciting, although much more research is needed to understand precisely how it works.”

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