ATTACH Cancer Research Project Works to Improve T-cell Mediated Immunotherapy

December 5, 2005

Brussels, 02 Dec 2005

A new EU-funded research project, called ATTACK, has vowed to track down how cancer cells manage to evade our immune system. The aim is to improve T-cell mediated immunotherapy against this major European killer.

The ATTACK research project, coordinated by Dr Isabelle Wartelle of Manchester University (UK), aims to boost understanding of how cancer cells trick our immune system. The five-year project involves a consortium of 16 partners across Europe and in Israel, who will collaborate on the process of engineering T-cells.

T-cells are part of the body's immune defence machinery, which naturally protects against infections and some cancers, and can be used to treat some malignant diseases. But many cancers somehow avoid tripping our immune system's alarm bells. The project team hopes that state-of-the-art technologies can be used to modify the T-cells in order to hunt down and destroy such cancerous tumours.

The aptly-named ATTACK – Adoptive engineered T-cell Targeting to Activate Cancer Killing – project is being funded by the EU's Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6) to the tune of nearly €12 million, according to a consortium statement, and will enable doctors to improve so-called 'T-cell mediated immunotherapy', which has the potential to fight a broad range of cancers.

Unlike radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which destroy both cancerous and healthy cells (see other Headlines in 'More info'), engineered T-cell therapy has the potential to destroy cancers selectively within a patient's body using its own infection-fighting mechanisms. This project focuses on optimising that system in the laboratory.

Targeted therapies

"The ultimate aim is to develop a process whereby T-cells are taken from the blood of a patient, genetically modified to enable them to target tumours, multiplied in the laboratory and injected in large numbers back into the patient," explains Robert Hawkins, professor of Medical Oncology at Manchester University.

The approach builds on original research by Professor Zelig Eshhar of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Partners in the project include experts in immunology and tumour biology, as well as those who have developed key aspects of engineered T-cells – all from well-known institutions such as the Université Pierre et Marie Curie (France), the Netherlands Cancer Institute, and the University College London (UK).

Vaccines can already prevent certain cancers, so the aim of this project is to develop effective methods to target others. "We expect the project to lead to many more trials in the future and are hopeful it could lead to real improvements in treatment," Hawkins notes.

Professor Nic Jones, head of the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research where the project will be based, confirms the importance of co-operative European-led research in fields like this. "Developments in cancer treatment are likely to require major team efforts, and we are delighted that the consortium has been awarded this major international grant."

DG Research
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