Health and Medicine

New Cancer Immunotherapy: Using a Healthy Person’s Immune System to Target Unhealthy Cells

Human T-cell
Human T-cell

Researchers from the Netherlands Cancer Institute, University of Oslo and Oslo University Hospital have published a new study that shows that if an individual’s own immune system cannot recognize tumors, another individual’s immune cells may be able to assist in the process. 

In the study, researchers added mutated DNA from cancer cells to immune stimulating cells that were removed from healthy donors. Upon implantation, the immune cells within the infected patient began to recognize cancer cells and started to fight back. These same cells were not previously able to detect any problem within the body’s damaged cells.

There are a handful of reasons why someone’s own cells would not be able to pick up on a problem. Immune cells are controlled by much interference when it comes to their ability to function, which are often known as “brakes”. There are many therapies being tested that “release” these brakes and would lead to much quicker detection of cancer by the human body. In many patients, the immune system simply is not able to perceive problems which may be quickly spreading throughout the system, completely unrecognizable.

Ton Schumacher from the Netherlands Cancer Institute and Johanna Olweus from the University of Oslo were the first to think of testing which they call a “borrowed immune system” in hopes it would kick start the infected person’s body into recognizing cancer cells it wasn’t yet detecting. T-cells are the cells within the immune system that pinpoint abnormalities and target attacks by scanning for protein fragments on the surface that are not meant to reside in the human body. T-cells attack immediately when they find an abnormal cell.

When cancer cells house damaged proteins, they may also hold foreign protein fragments (called neo-antigens) on their exterior. This is very similar to how a cell infected with a virus will express viral protein fragments. To test whether or not the T-cells would react to all the foreign protein fragments within a cancer cell, the research teams mapped out all possible neo-antigens on the surface of melanoma cells from three patients. The cancer cells in each patient appeared to have a large number of varying types of neo-antigens. Upon trying to match the neo-antigens to the T-cells from the tumors, a majority of the tumor cell protein fragments were undetectable.

Secondly, the researchers tested the same neo-antigens and whether they would be detected by the T-cells that came from healthy individuals. Amazingly, this time around, the T Cells were able to locate a large number of neo-antigents that the patient’s own T-cells were not previously able to pick up on.

Schumacher says these findings hold a possibility in strengthening the immune system response within cancer patients. He plans to focus on how to locate the right donor T Cells that will match the neo-antigens. The receptor used by the T Cells will be able to be used in order to genetically modify the T-cells of cancer patients so they will be able to pinpoint damaged cells. Ton says there is still quite a bit of work that needs to be done before cancer patients will benefit from the latest findings. He believes enhancing the throughput is a very important aspect of his team’s upcoming research.

The complete study can be read in Science Journal, which was published earlier this month.