Chemotherapy and radiotherapy have become potent weapons in the fight against cancer, but researchers are continually working on more strategic strikes that can limit the side effects of such scattergun approaches. Scientists are now reporting an exciting advance in this burgeoning world of bespoke cancer treatments, developing a new immunotherapy screening technology that greatly accelerates the creation of drugs that can target individual tumors with 100-percent specificity.

Our body's immune system possesses its own natural cancer-fighting capabilities, and a growing arm of cancer research involves immunotherapy, which looks to turbo charge these capabilities. The new research, carried out by scientists at the University of California, Irvine, focuses specifically on one kind of immunotherapy involving a patient's own T cells.

These cells feature arrays of receptor molecules on their surface that lock onto antigens on the surface of toxic cancer cells and begin to destroy them. Engineered T cell therapy is a form of cancer treatment where physicians collect T cells from a patient and equip them with greater numbers of surface molecules to better bind with the cancer cell antigens in an attempt to overpower them.

The trouble is, working out which molecules are needed to do the job is hugely labor-intensive. There are hundreds of millions of different types of these molecules, so finding the right one to match the cancer antigens in question can take as long as a year. This makes it not only expensive, but not very conducive to the idea of prompt cancer treatment where time is invariably of the essence.

The UCI researchers have developed what they describe as a lab-on-a-chip, a reference to the idea that their scaled-down technology can perform the role of a typical science laboratory. The platform involves feeding T cells and cancer cells into microscopic oil-water droplets. The team found that in doing so, matching pairs were quick to bind to one another and gather inside microscopic fluid containers. Not only that, they did so with 100 percent specificity. This means these matching pairs can be sorted and identified within days, much faster than current screening methods.

Though this is just a preparatory step in this form of treatment, as the cells still need to be engineered and administered to the patient, it is a significant breakthrough, and not just for the sake of expediency. The scientists expect it will also greatly reduce the cost of engineering bespoke T cell receptor molecules. Promisingly, they claim the technology will become available to pharmaceutical companies within just a few months.

"This technology is particularly exciting because it dismantles major challenges in cancer treatments," says UCI's Weian Zhao, who led the research team. "This use of droplet microfluidics screening significantly reduces the cost of making new cancer immunotherapies that are associated with less systemic side effects than standard chemotherapy drugs, and vastly speeds up the timeframe for treatment."

The research was published in the journal Lab on a Chip.