Tumours contain the seeds of their own destruction 

04/03/2016 00:00 
UCL and UCLH researchers have made a breakthrough in understanding the genetic make-up of tumours that could lead to personalised treatments even when cancer is advanced.

The genetic make-up of tumours changes as the tumours grow and can be complex which can make it very difficult for the body’s immune system to identify and fight the cancer. What researchers have discovered is that there is one ‘flag’ that is present in every cancer cell even at the early stages of cancer.

These findings are especially exciting because they suggest that this flag might be used to get a patient’s own immune system to attack all cancer cells at once.

Researcher Dr Sergio Quezada, from the UCL Cancer Institute said: “The body’s immune system acts as the police trying to tackle cancer, the criminals. Genetically diverse tumours are like a gang of hoodlums involved in different crimes, from robbery to smuggling. And the immune system struggles to keep on top of the cancer – just as it’s difficult for police when there’s so much going on. Our research shows that instead of aimlessly chasing crimes in different neighbourhoods, we can give the police the information they need to get to the kingpin at the root of all organised crime – or the weak spot in a patient’s tumour – to wipe out the problem for good.”

The researchers analysed data from hundreds of patients from previous studies to unearth more information about the flags, known as neo-antigens. Then, in the lab they isolated immune cells, called T-cells from samples from lung cancer patients, demonstrating that such cells are able to recognise the flags present on every tumour cell.

The team suggest their research could pave the way for therapies that specifically activate these T-cells to target all the tumour cells at once based on the disease’s genetic signature.

Researcher Professor Charles Swanton, a UCLH Consultant, said: “This is exciting. We can prioritise and target tumour antigens that are present in every cell, the Achilles heel of these highly complex cancers. This opens up a way to look at individual patients’ tumours and profile all the antigen variations to figure out the best ways for immunotherapy treatments to work, prioritising antigens present in every tumour cell and identifying the body’s immune T-cells that recognise them.”

Dr Quezada said: “For many years we have studied how the immune response to cancer is regulated without a clear understanding of what it is that immune cells recognise on cancerous cells. Based on these new findings, we will be able to tell the immune system how to specifically recognise and attack tumours.”

The research, published in Science, was supported by the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and University College London, Cancer Research UK and the Rosetrees Trust and involved researchers from UCL, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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