‘Turbo-charging’ the immune system could kill cancer

Turbo-charging immune system T-cells could cure cancer

Scientists in Britain and the U.S. believe they have found the key to end all cancer: a “turbo-charging” immune system protein and a process called gene therapy.

Researchers at London’s Imperial College last year in April discovered a molecule that could boost a body’s immune system to fight off chronic illnesses like cancer and were planning on developing a gene therapy that utilizes this protein and, as the Telegraph reports, were expecting to begin human testing in three years.

The protein, called lymphocyte expansion molecule or LEM, aids the spread of cancer killing cells, known as ‘T cells’ by giving the immune system a massive energy boosts that aids in the regeneration of these cells until they’re able to overpower the cancer cells.

Professor Philip Ashton-Richardt, who led the study from the Section of Immunobiology in the Department of Medicine at Imperial described the molecule as a “game-changer” to the Telegraph.

“This is a completely unknown protein. Nobody had ever seen it before or was even aware that it existed. It looks and acts like no other protein,” Rickardt said.

Gene therapy, on the other hand, is close to becoming a plausible treatment in the U.S. as it could reach the market by 2017 as versions of this therapy for a limited number of blood cancer patients are nearing approval by the federal regulators.

According to The New York Times, Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg, Dr. Carl H. June of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Michel Sadelain of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have been the leaders of gene therapy research for decades. This therapy is completely personal, being customized for the specific patient and as The New York Times describes, gives patients a “souped-up version” of their immune system, one “that works better than nature made it,” as Dr. June said.

The procedure of the therapy goes as follow: T-cells are extracted from the patient’s blood and then undergo genetic engineering so they can specifically recognize and destroy cancer cells. These cells are then multiplied in a laboratory setting before “millions or billions of them are put back into the patient’s bloodstream.”

Each one of these genetically engineered T-cells are capable of killing 100,000 cancer cells, leading to researchers such as June to label them as “serial killer” cells or a “Frankenstein-like molecule” as Dr. Renier J. Brentjens, the director of cellular therapeutics at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center describes them.

As of this moment, this type of treatment is only for some blood related cancers not cancers such as lung or breast cancer. Research is also still being conducted to figure out how to stop possible lethal side effects from this procedure, such as brain swelling which resulted in the death of three patients during a clinical trial.

If these type of gene therapies prove to be successful, it could end or at least drastically reduce the need for chemotherapy and toxic drugs to combat cancer.



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Image retrieved from Flickr.

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