Researchers at the University of Miami announce the development of a new method of hunting down and killing cancer cells roaming free in the bloodstream. The group says that the technique has thus far only been used in test tubes and on animal models in the lab, but adds that a viable, generally-available version, targeted specifically for humans, could be made available within a decade. Scientists say that the key to this approach is making the immune system function more effectively, rather than introducing foreign substances in the body, aimed at the cancer cells themselves.
When people develop cancer tumors that go untreated for some time, cancerous cells can easily break off their initial location, and then enter the bloodstream. When this happens, the chances of that patient developing metastases (having cancer spread to several or all organs) increase considerably. Unfortunately, at this point, there is no way for scientists to prevent this from happening. Once surgeons remove tumors from lungs, livers, kidneys, pancreases, breasts, prostates, and so on, they then have to wait for a long time, to see whether they actually defeated the cancer. If cells escape the tumor, and are already in the bloodstream at the time of the surgery, then the cancer will just relapse somewhere else.
The University of Miami research team set out to conduct its investigation fully aware of the importance of developing an efficient method of stopping cancer cells before they grab a foothold on other organs. They say that one of the main reasons why these cells run free is that they produce low amounts of antigens. These are specific chemicals that the human immune system can recognize, and guide itself by. If insufficient amounts are available, then our defense cells will not engage, and the cancer will escape unharmed. What the team did was develop a method of forcing the cancer cells to produce more antigens. This activates larger amounts of immune cells, which then decimate their targets, increasing patients' chances of survival.
The investigators are based at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center (SCCC). The study was led by expert Eli Gilboa, PhD, who is the co-leader of the SCCC Tumor Immunology Program, and also the Dodson professor of microbiology and immunology at the university. Postdoctoral associate Fernando Pastor, PhD, senior research associate Despina Kolonias, MS, and University of Iowa assistant professor of internal medicine Paloma Giangrande, PhD, also contributed to the research.
“We’ve developed what could become an alternative to vaccines, that would be simpler, broadly applicable, and potentially more effective,” Gilboa explains. He adds that the next step in the monumental work ahead is to start clinical trial at SCCC. Prostate and breast cancers are the most likely cancers to be targeted in these new investigations, he concludes.