The “Smart Bomb” of Tomorrow – Eradicating Cancer
Imagine a world without chemotherapy. Imagine a world where cancer could be fought without side effects. Imagine a world where it didn’t matter how far along your cancer had progressed, treatment could still be rendered and completely effective.
The New England Journal of Medicine recently published an article from a joint collaboration between several cancer centers on both the east and west coast. A 52 year-old man with stage IV malignant melanoma, a very aggressive and potentially lethal form of skin cancer, donated blood to the scientists who have developed a technique to isolate specific CD4+ T cells and clone them in vitro.
In our bodies, our immune system is responsible for attacking all cells that may pose a threat to our well-being, whether they be bacteria, viruses, foreign bodies, or even cancerous cells. Each T cell is responsible for recognizing a specific cell line which is potentially threatening, then targeting (where the “T” comes from) those cells for destruction by the production of antibodies, and large vacuum cleaner-type cells called macrophages. The trouble with cancer is that the cells are multiplying very rapidly, and there are only a few circulating T cells which are specific to that cancerous cell line. Therefore the cancerous cells overwhelm our ability to tag them fast enough, and the cancer grows and spreads.
What the scientists in this study have done is isolate the T cells which are targeted towards the malignant melanoma. Then they used a chemical and biological process to multiply those T cells several thousands of times over. Finally, they injected those thousands of T cells back into the patient, and let them go to work. Now there were so many T cells compared to cancerous cells, that tagging them was easy and the body was naturally able to break down the cancer using its own immune system. The man went into complete remission and has stayed there for the past two years.
The beauty and elegance of this new technique is that scientists are augmenting our body’s inherent ability to fight cancer. Because the patient was injected with his own T cells, there was no threat of rejection, and no side effects whatsoever. Additionally, by unleashing the patient’s immune system he was able to attack cancer cells wherever they were in his body, rather than just the primary site. It doesn’t matter if the cancer is multiplying in the lungs, in the brain, on skin, or in lymph nodes. As long as there is a blood supply, the body is able to fight back and win.
This technology is still a long way off from being implemented in the mainstream, but it definitely holds promise as a new tool in the fight against cancer.
Hunder, N.N., Wallen, H., Cao, J., Hendricks, D.W., Reilly, J.Z., Rodmyre, R., Jungbluth, A., Gnjatic, S., Thompson, J.A., Yee, C. (2008). Treatment of Metastatic Melanoma with Autologous CD4+ T Cells against NY-ESO-1. New England Journal of Medicine, 358(25), 2698-2703. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa0800251