A team of researchers in the United Kingdom discovered a new type of immune cell that they say could one day be used as a “one-size-fits-all” therapy for most cancers.
Scientists at Cardiff University say they’ve found a T-cell with a new type of receptor that can recognize and kill most cancers. Their findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Immunology on Monday.
The discovery has not yet been tested in patients, but study author Andrew Sewell called it “an exciting new frontier.”
“We hope this new (T-cell receptor) may provide us with a different route to target and destroy a wide range of cancers in all individuals,” he said in a statement.
Experts in the field not involved in the study were cautiously optimistic about the results. Dr. Marcel van den Brink, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, called the discover “a very nice step forward” but said more work is needed before determining whether the research could lead to results for patients.
“It’s very early in the process to figure out if this pathway, if these types of T-cells, really could be used as a way to control cancer,” van den Brink said.
To treat cancer, doctors have employed surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy for years, but adoptive cell transfer is an immunotherapy treatment that has rapidly emerged in recent years, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Adoptive cell transfer relies on “collecting and using patients’ own immune cells to treat their cancer,” the institute says, and CAR T-cell therapy, one type of adoptive cell transfer, has advanced the most in clinical trials, with the FDA approving its use in some cases, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The researchers at Cardiff compared their discovery to CAR T-cell therapy but said it could one day be used in more types of cancer.
Under these new therapies, doctors remove patients’ T-cells, genetically modify them and return them to patients’ blood in order to attack cancer cells.
The T-cells scan the surfaces of others cells to determine which ones are cancerous, but this process is highly individualized and treatments are limited to certain types of cancer. That’s because it relies on a cell-surface molecule called human leukocyte antigen, which varies among patients.
However, the Cardiff researchers say they uncovered a unique T-cell receptor that can find the molecule MR1, which does not vary among people.
During lab testing, the team says the T-cells were able to kill a host of cancers, including lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer cells. Healthy cells were not killed during lab tests.
Testing within mice with human cancer also showed promising results, the researchers said.
Van den Brink said researchers still need to determine what exactly the T-cell receptors are detecting on the MR1 and whether that’s specific to cancer cells. “If it’s found on normal and cancer cells, then you can’t really develop this as a therapy,” he said.
Additionally, more research into how common these T-cells are is needed, he said.
“It’s one T-cell clone that they worked with so we need to see if we can find more of these T-cells and can we find it in everybody,” van den Brink said.
Still, the overall field of studying how T-cells kill cancer cells has been among the most promising areas of cancer research in recent years, he said. It could only be a matter of years before determining if the research will lead to results in patients given how growing of a field it is, he said.
“We can use the T-cells as living drugs to kill cancer, which is an amazing step.”