The results of two major studies have shown that immunotherapies could hold the key to successfully eradicating cancer.
Below we assess briefly how these treatments work and talk to a scientist-turned-chief executive whose researchers are developing a medicine that uses the body’s own defences to cure itself.
Cancer is responsible for a quarter of all deaths in the UK and with over 350,000 diagnoses each year researchers across the globe are working relentlessly to develop new methods of treatment and management.
But are we moving closer to a cure? This week we had news that an experimental immunotherapy – a treatment harnessing the body’s own immune system - has seemingly healed a number of otherwise terminal cases of leukaemia. It has got people very excited.
The results of two landmark studies involving the use of T-cell immunotherapy were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington DC.
In one trial by the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, the cancer-fighting cells remained active in the body for 14 years.
In the other, conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, it totally eradicated the cancer from 94% of terminally ill patients.
The T-cell immunotherapy technique is being developed and refined by scientists around the world.
It involves the use of the body’s T-cells, white blood cells that normally fight off bacteria and viruses.
They are extracted from the patient’s blood and genetically modified to recognise and destroy cancer cells.
They are then replicated millions of times in a lab and implanted back into the patient.
The T-cells then attack the patient’s cancer and constantly patrol the body, much like a vaccine, to prevent it from returning.
The results have been hailed as ‘revolutionary’ by leading cancer researchers and have thrust immunotherapies to the forefront of cancer treatment.
Dr Richard Goodfellow of Scancell (LON:SCLP), a company dedicated to the development of cancer fighting immunotherapies, sees the results as a promising first step in an on-going refinement of the technique.
“It’s certainly good for us in the sense that immunotherapy is in the public eye,” he says of the recent drug trials, that have claimed quite a few column inches in recent days.
“It has increased awareness not only with the public, but pharmaceutical companies and medical bodies are starting to acknowledge immunotherapy as the way forward for the treatment of cancer.”
Goodfellow didn’t want to downplay the significance of the results, but highlighted that it was still early stages.
“It has its limitations,” he said.
“As you know, cancer is a whole bunch of different diseases and at this stage the technique only works on blood cancer, leukaemia.
“The next stage would be seeing its viability with so-called solid cancers.”
Solid cancers include breast, lung, bowel and prostate, which together account for over half of all cancer cases in the UK, according to Cancer Research UK.
The cost of the new treatments is a limitation that needed to be addressed, Scancell’s Goodfellow told Proactive.
“Currently it costs half a million pounds per case; obviously this is not something you could have on the NHS.”
“The next stage would be to develop more cost effective versions of the technique, and that’s one of the areas we are pursuing at Scancell,” said Goodfellow.
Management and treatment of cancer at its early stages would be much more cost effective and therefore more accessible, he explained.
“We also work with immunotherapies, T-Cells, but our field is targeting the earliest stages of the disease,” said the Scancell boss.
“We aim at treating cancer long before it gets to the advanced stages seen in the patients who participated in these trials.
“In the cases [cited above] it really was the last hope when all other treatments had failed.”
Current immunotherapies are in early stages of development and not without their set-backs.
Only when one of these next-generation treatments is signed off by the regulators for sale either here in Europe or across in the States should we really become excited. That could take many more years.