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Cancer: Dare to Use the ‘C’ Word

Cancer, the scourge of our time, may have met its match. In a recent breakthrough, scientists have observed promising results by injecting drugs directly into cancers in mice. This treatment activates the body's’ own immune system to hunt and destroy all tumours of the same type within a patient. This approach has worked to attack multiple cancer types, suggesting a widespread application that has thus far eluded medical researchers.

The cancers targeted were lymphoma tumours and promising results suggest that the treatment could work for a wide array of cancer types and should be advanced to human trials. Ron Levy, a senior author of the study and an oncology specialist at Stanford University, has dedicated his career to cancer immunology, with a special focus on the role of immune systems. Idit Sagiv-Barfi, a professor in oncology at Stanford University and lead author of the study, made important observations during trials.

The injection of the agents into the tumours had a similar regression effect on similar tumours in different sites. This occurs when a cancer metastasizes, meaning a tumour spreads through the bloodstream and starts growing in a new location, making it possible to have lung cancer cells in your stomach, liver, or anywhere it can gain purchase. This makes it difficult for scientists who may attack the original tumour but not find the many places to which it has spread. This new treatment seems to invoke the body’s own defenses to attack the cancer wherever it may be hiding.

From specific to general cancer attack

Previously approved treatments for this type of cancer required highly expensive and time consuming methods of diagnosis and treatment. Patients previously had to undergo extraction of their afflicted cells to be reintroduced after genetic modification. These treatment methods come with mild to debilitating side effects on patients which prompts searching for alternatives.The University of Stanford is now accepting applications for participants for the follow up trials with humans. The eligibility criteria for the study is specific and limited to around 15 participants.

The treatment, if successful in humans, will benefit from its unique appeal of approaching the status of a potential cure, as opposed to a continuous treatment. Levy has highlighted their success saying “Our approach uses a one-time application of very small amounts of two agents to stimulate the immune cells only within the tumour itself. In the mice, we saw amazing, bodywide effects, including the elimination of tumours all over the animal.”

Complete regression is the ideal and, combined with minimally invasive techniques such as injections, the treatment may avoid previous costly barriers of treating this cancer. The injection is a concoction of two immune system stimulating agents which are introduced directly into the tumours. The introduction of the stimulating agents works by activating T cells, the cancer specific immune cells.

By experimenting with immune stimulating molecules, Sagiv-Barfi and her colleagues have successfully been able to make tumours “vanish”. Tests concluded that molecules with the best results have been a DNA snippet called CpG and an immune cell protein OX40. Alone, each of the two molecules have little to no effect. When combined, the DNA snippet stimulates certain cells that instigate counter attacks against tumours while the OX40 stimulates T cells which naturally battle tumours as well. In other words, the combination gives immune cells the boost needed to combat the immune cell deactivation process that tumours induce.


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