One of the primary reasons that cancer is difficult to treat is that tumor cells often go unnoticed by the immune system, but doctors at the University of Geneva and the University of Basel may have found a way to bolster the body’s natural defenses using artificially-created viruses.
The breakthrough, reported last week in the journal Nature Communications, uses the synthetic viruses to alert the immune system of the cancer cells’ presence, causing the body to activate T cells that will help fight off the tumor, the researchers said Wednesday in a statement.
Unlike cancer cells, viral infections cause the immune system to release alarm signals, which in turn causes the body to use all weapons in its arsenal to fight off the pathogen, co-senior author Daniel Pinschewer, a professor from the University of Basel Department of Biomedicine noted. So he and his colleagues looked to harness this in as part of a new cancer-fighting strategy.
“It has been known for almost a century that infection with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) induces killer T cell responses of virtually unmatched potency,” Pinschewer explained to Digital Trends. “We thus set out to leverage this feature of LCMV infection for the purpose of cancer immunotherapy, where killer T cells represent a key mechanism of protection.”
Human trials could occur within the next two years
As the study authors explained, immunotherapies have long been used to treat cancer by causing the body’s defense system to more actively battle cancer cells, but finding a technique which can trigger the immune system to give 100% effort in combating tumors had yet to be achieved.
Through their research with LCMV, however, Pinschewer and his colleagues might have finally found a designer virus capable of eliciting such a response. They developed a virus which could infect both humans and mice, and which contained specific proteins usually found only in cancer cells.
While these pathogens were not harmful to the mice, they did trigger the desired response from the immune system: infection with the virus caused the body to recognize the cancer proteins as dangerous, causing it to produce powerful cytotoxic T-lymphocytes (killer T cells) that went on to destroy tumor cells that contained the same protein as the synthetic virus.
“The immune system gets to see a component of the cancer cell it should fight, and alongside with this structure the viral infection rings molecular ‘alarm bells,’ which give it that the immune system responds as vigorously as it possibly can,” Pinschewer told Digital Times. “In principle, one could imagine targeting all sorts of cancers, provided one has a tailor-made a virus for each tumor type.”
However, Pinschewer cautioned that the approach has only been tested on rodents thus far, and it is not a given that the results will translate to the human immune systems. Clinical trials will be necessary to investigate further, and he told Digital Times that he expects those to begin within the next two years.
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