Complex Cancer Therapy Could Personalize Tumor Treatment


Dr. Antoni Ribas | Image by USA Today

A new, complex approach to treating cancer is opening up the possibility for more personalized medical care in the future.

A study published in Nature earlier this month detailed a “complicated” cancer treatment leveraging state-of-the-art technologies to target tumors from within.

Michel Sadelain, a physician-scientist who directs the Center for Cell Engineering at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said the procedure offers a “glimpse into the future of cancer therapy.”

The researchers concluded that it’s possible and safe to trigger the body’s immune response to identify and fight cancer in a highly targeted fashion. One of the study’s authors, Dr. Antoni Ribas, said it is the most complex treatment he has ever delivered.

While none of the 16 patients in the study were cured — or even experienced much of an improvement to their condition, for that matter — it is hoped the findings will open the door for effective treatment in the future.

“If we turn on the immune system the right way, the immune system has memory and can lead to long-term responses,” said Ribas, a professor of medicine at UCLA and UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The benefit of the therapy administered by the researchers is the multipronged approach used to attack tumors. Ribas said the study has broken ground on “several problems at a time to advance a new form of therapy.”

While other forms of treatment, like radiation and chemotherapy, can be effective, they also precipitate severe side effects, making patients ill by killing healthy cells.

Dr. Kai Wucherpfennig is chairman of the department of cancer immunology and virology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He was encouraged by the study’s therapeutic approach since it targets cancer from multiple directions simultaneously.

All cells in the human body carry identifiers called receptors. Identifying and killing cells associated with tumors is one method of fighting cancer. Unfortunately, with cancers involving solid tumors, like breast cancer, the cells also carry a host of healthy receptors essential to survival.

The researchers, however, were able to ascertain the most likely flags to be present on tumor cells and attack cancer with greater precision.

The therapy involved multiple steps, starting with analyzing tumor cells for genetic mutations, then identifying immune cells could themselves recognize the mutations. This allowed the researchers to determine what made those particular immune cells so effective.

Lastly, the patient’s immune cell was altered using CRISPR gene editing, increasing the number that could recognize and ultimately kill those cancerous cells.

Sadelain explained, “You can string together all these steps and reach a point where you have these cells to give to some of your patients.”

While the findings were encouraging, the limited size of the study does not allow for any broad conclusions about the therapy’s effectiveness. It could be “years or even decades” before the complicated process is “simplified, roboticized,” and “streamlined,” said Sadelain.

For now, he and others are already working on the next research stage: attempting to manipulate the cells’ power to heighten the benefit to the patient.

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