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Team find 'cancer's Achilles heel'

Team find 'cancer's Achilles heel'
7th March 2016

Researchers at University College London (UCL) have found a way to better enable the immune system to target and destroy cancer cells.

Published in the journal Science, the findings say this discovery has found the disease's "Achilles heel". However, this personalised treatment would be expensive and is yet to be trialled in patients.

The research, funded by Cancer Research UK and the Rosetrees Trust, could lead to improved immunotherapies and mean better results can be achieved from drugs used to target the immune system.

During the development of a tumour, the diversity of its genetic faults can be flagged on the cancer cell surface, as unique mutations appear in different parts of the tumour.

By looking at information from hundreds of patients from previous studies, the team were able to see that some of these flags - called antigens - represent the very earliest mutations of the disease. They found that these antigens can also be found on all the cells in a tumour, rather than just a particular type.

With this information, the team then focused on samples from two patients with lung cancer and then [rep] isolated specialised immune cells, called T-cells, which are able to spot these flags. However, they are often deactivated by the tumour's defences.

The new findings could lead to mean that treatments can be developed to activate these T-cells to target all of the cells in the tumour.

Dr Sergio Quezada, co-author of the study, Cancer Research UK scientist and head of the Immune Regulation and Cancer Immunotherapy lab at UCL Cancer Institute, said: “The body’s immune system acts as the police trying to tackle cancer, the criminals.

"Genetically diverse tumours are like a gang of hoodlums involved in different crimes - from robbery to smuggling. And the immune system struggles to keep on top of the cancer – just as it’s difficult for police when there’s so much going on."

He said the research shows that instead of aimlessly chasing crimes in different neighbourhoods, we can give the police the information they need to get to the kingpin – or the weak spot in a patient’s tumour – to wipe it out for good.

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