A team from Cardiff University accidentally discovered a method to kill all kinds of cancers in laboratory tests.
The results, published in Nature Immunology, have not been tested in patients, but researchers claim to have it in their hands "enormous potential" for the treatment of all cancers.
Cardiff University researchers were testing blood for immune cells that could fight bacteria when they discovered an entirely new type of T-cell.
This unknown immune cell has a never-before-seen receptor that acts like a hook, clinging to most human cancers and ignoring healthy cells.
Our immune system is our body's natural defense against infection, but it can also attack cancerous cells. Scientists were looking for something else: what they found is a particular T cell inside people's blood. It is an immune cell capable of scanning the body to assess whether there is a threat that needs to be eliminated.
The difference is that it could attack a wide range of cancers.
"Here there is the possibility to cure every patient"the researcher, Prof. Andrew Sewell. "Previously no one believed that this could be possible. This discovery raises the prospect of a single treatment for all types of cancer."
How does it work?
T cells have "receptors" on their surface that allow them to "see" on a chemical level. The Cardiff team discovered a special T cell whose receptors were able to find and kill a wide range of cancer cells in the laboratory including lungs, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovary and kidney.
All this while leaving normal fabrics intact.
This particular T cell receptor interacts with a molecule called MR1, which is found on the surface of every cell in the human body and appears to report abnormalities in the metabolism of cancer cells to the immune system.
"We are the first to describe a T cell that finds MR1 in cancer cells. This has never been done in the world before"says another researcher, Dr. Gary Dolton.
Because it is very important
T-cell cancer therapies already exist and the development of immunotherapy is one of the most interesting directions in medicine. The most famous example is CAR-T, a living drug produced by genetic engineering of a patient's T cells to search for and destroy cancer.
CAR-T can have incredible results, which transform some patients from terminal patients to complete remission.
However, the approach is highly specific and only works in a limited number of tumors (mostly solid ones, not like leukemia) where there is a clear target to be able to train T cells to detect it.
This newly discovered T-cell receptor could instead lead to a "universal" treatment, a cure for all cancers.
The idea is that a blood sample would be drawn from a cancer patient.
Their T cells would be extracted and then genetically modified to be reprogrammed to create the receptor capable of finding cancer.
The improved cells would be grown in large quantities in the laboratory and then returned to the patient. It is the same process used to make CAR-T therapies.
Cure for all cancers: the right disclaimer
The research has only been tested on animals and cells in the laboratory, and further safety checks are needed before human trials can begin.
Lucia Mori e Gennaro de free, from the University of Basel in Switzerland, said the research has "great potential", but it is premature to say that it could lead to a cure for all cancers.
Daniel Davis, professor of immunology at the University of Manchester, said: "At the moment, this is an early stage research and not close to real medicines for patients, but there is no doubt that this is a very exciting discovery, both for the advancement of our basic knowledge of the immune system and for the possibility of future new medicines ".