Brussels, 02 Apr 2003
Researchers from the UK have discovered a potent weapon against bowel cancer which uses genetically modified blood cells to identify and attack the disease.
Scientists from Cancer Research UK isolated and removed a particular type of white blood cell called T-lymphocytes, or T-cells, from 10 patients with advanced bowel cancer. The role of T-cells within the immune system is to home in and attack alien cells, but as cancer cells are rogue versions of the body's own cells, T-cells often find them difficult to identify.
In order to overcome this, the T-cells were genetically engineered with an artificial gene containing a homing element to enhance the recognition of cancer cells, and an activating element to target and destroy them. Then, in the laboratory, the researchers tested the engineered blood against bowel cancer cells and found that all 10 samples showed potent anti-cancer activity.
Professor Robert Hawkins of the Cancer Research UK department of medical oncology says: 'In most situations, the immune system is powerful and highly effective, but when it comes to cancer it can get confused and may need a helping hand. What we've done in this new study is to give our immune cells the equipment they need to recognise, home in on and destroy cells from tumours, allowing us to harness the power of the immune system to tackle the disease.'
The team plans to carry out human trials of the technique next year, using the T-cells from 30 patients with advanced bowel cancer and replacing them after genetic modification.
'We've shown that the technique works a hundred per cent of the time in the laboratory, but the real test will be whether it works in cancer patients,' Professor Hawkins explains.
Around 300,000 people in Europe and the US are thought to be affected by the disease each year, and news of this latest breakthrough comes at the beginning of bowel cancer awareness month (April), which aims to highlight the need for more research into treatment for what is, in the UK, the second highest cancer killer.
Professor Robert Souhami, Cancer Research UK's Director of Clinical Research, says: 'There's still a long way to go in the development of this new technique, but it does seem to hold promise for the treatment of cases which are out of reach of conventional medicine.'