A revolutionary cancer treatment that remembers the disease and remains like a watchman to prevent it returning is being developed.
Immune cells are being engineered so they not only boost the body’s natural defences to fight tumours but stand guard for life, acting like a vaccine.
The study, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Washington DC, has proven for the first time that engineered “memory T-cells” can persist in the body for 14-plus years.
Professor Chiara Bonini, a haematologist at San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, said: “T-cells are a living drug, and in particular have the potential to persist in our body for our whole lives. Imagine when you are given a vaccine as a kid and you are protected against flu for all of your life. Why is that? Because when a T-cell encounters the antigen and gets activated, it kills the pathogen but also persists as a memory cell.”
In trials at a Milan hospital, 10 patients who had bone marrow transplants were given immune boosting therapy that included the memory T-cells. They were found to be there 14 years later.
Immunotherapies, which harness the body’s own immune system, look set to replace cell-damaging chemotherapies. But one of the biggest challenges is to make these changes last long enough that the cancer cannot come back.
Professor Daniel Davis, from the University of Manchester, called the study an “important advance” in cancer treatment. “The implication is that infusing genetically modified versions of these particular T-cells, the stem memory T-cells, could provide a long-lasting immune response against a person’s cancer,” he said.
In another presentation at the AAAS, experts from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle showed their T-cell immunotherapy treatment for leukaemia had an “unprecedented” success rate of 94pc in patients who were given only months to live.
Professor Stanley Riddell said the treatment had saved the lives of leukaemia patients for whom all other treatments had failed.