Synthetic protein tweak could lead to universal cancer immunotherapy
Scientists at ETH Zurich have made a breakthrough towards designing an off-the-shelf treatment for immunotherapy against cancer. A synthetic protein tweak can allow immune cells from any donor to be given to any patient without the risk of a dangerous immune reaction.
The human immune system is a powerful frontline defense against disease, but unfortunately cancer has a few underhanded techniques up its sleeve that helps it hide and avoid destruction. Immunotherapy is an emerging treatment that returns the advantage to the immune system, by supercharging a patient’s immune cells to seek and destroy tumors.
Usually, the technique works by removing a patient’s own immune cells, genetically engineering them to better recognize cancer, and returning them to the body. However, not only does this take time – which many cancer patients don’t have in spades – but it’s not always effective if a patient’s immune system isn’t up to the task.
Ideally, immune cells could be donated from a healthy patient, but this brings its own complications. After all, immune cells are experts at recognizing and attacking “foreign” cells, meaning the donated cells will often end up attacking the recipient’s healthy cells.
In the new study, the ETH Zurich team found a way to potentially bypass this problem, paving the way for a standardized, off-the-shelf immunotherapy. The scientists targeted a specific molecular complex called TCR-CD3, which is found on the surface of killer T cells and activates them towards specific antibodies – which includes both the desired triggers like cancer, and undesired ones on healthy cells.
The team created a synthetic version of the TCR-CD3 complex which prevent killer T cells from attacking healthy cells, but still allowing them to be further tweaked to target cancer cells. Tests in human cells in the lab have so far seemed promising, with no sign of dangerous immune responses.
While there’s still plenty of work to do, such as conducting tests in human patients, the team says that the research could eventually lead to a standardized, off-the-shelf product for cancer therapy that can be administered to any patient, without needing to remove, engineer and return their own immune cells. This would make it much cheaper, easier and faster to roll out to patients.
The researchers have applied for patents and plan to found a spin-off company to help bring the technique to the market.
Source: ETH Zurich
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