Study Explores Using a Body's Own Immune System to Fight Cancer

The process, called immunotherapy, is much easier on the body than chemicals or radiation.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Cancer! The dreaded C-word that paralyzes and terrifies all who hear it! It seems there is always a new treatment on the horizon but never good enough to make a difference.

Now, a new study is coming along that may just change that. The research, led by engineering and medical researchers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, shows how engineered immune cells used in new cancer therapies can overcome physical barriers to allow a patient's own immune system to fight off tumors without the use of chemicals or radiation. 

The new treatment makes use of  T cells, a type of white blood cell, and cytotoxic T cells, cells that act like soldiers who seek out and destroy invader cells. It is a type of immunotherapy.

According to the National Cancer Institute, immunotherapy is a type of "cancer treatment that helps your immune system fight cancer" on its own. The immune system is your body's natural system that fights infections and other diseases naturally. 

Immunotherapy does not require chemicals or radiation and is therefore much easier on the patient's body and health.

"The tumor is sort of like an obstacle course, and the T cell has to run the gauntlet to reach the cancer cells," Paolo Provenzano, the senior author of the study and a biomedical engineering associate professor in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, explained in a press release.

"These T cells get into tumors, but they just can't move around well, and they can't go where they need to go before they run out of gas and are exhausted."

The researchers are now seeking to mechanically optimize the cells or make them more adept at overcoming any barriers they may encounter so that they may more effectively recognize and get to the cancer cells, destroying the tumor in the process.

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"This study is our first publication where we have identified some structural and signaling elements where we can tune these T cells to make them more effective cancer fighters," Provenzano, also a researcher in the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center, added.

"Every 'obstacle course' within a tumor is slightly different, but there are some similarities. After engineering these immune cells, we found that they moved through the tumor almost twice as fast no matter what obstacles were in their way."

So far the research has been focused on pancreatic cancer but Provenzano says the approach can be applied to several different types of cancers. Could this be the treatment we have all been waiting for?

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