Cancer breakthrough: Scientists say immune system transplants mean 'future is incredibly bright'

Scientists have discovered a breakthrough treatment to fight cancer, claiming the disease will no longer be deadly for future generations. Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London believe it is possible to strengthen the body's defences by transplanting immune cells from strangers. Immunology expert Professor Adrian Hayday, group leader of the Immunosurveillance Lab at The Crick, said scientists and doctors could become more like engineers, upgrading the body rather than bombarding it with toxic chemotherapy. “Using the immune system to fight cancer is the ultimate do-it-yourself approach,” he said.

Professor Adrian Hayday said, “Even a few years ago the notion that any clinician would look at a patient and deliver a therapy which wasn’t going to directly affect the cancer in any way, shape or form, would have been pretty radical. But that’s what happening. We’re seeing impressive results with cells called natural killer cells. It’s very early days but there are patients receiving them in this next year and the year after, and the nice feature is, unlike other immunotherapy, these cells aren’t rejected. So you have the possibility of developing cell banks that could be used for anyone. It could be someone else’s immune system. You would have cell banks and you would call them up and deliver them to the clinic just hours before they were needed to be infused. We’re not quite there yet. But that’s what we’re trying now. There is every capability of getting cell banks like this established.”

Patients will begin to receive the new treatment next year, and the team now wants to establish ‘immune banks’ to store disease-fighting cells.  Until this year, scientists thought it would be impossible to import a stranger’s immune cells as the immunosuppresent drugs needed to ensure the body did not reject them, would cancel out the benefits. However, in 2018, scientists realised that immune cells are unlike other cells, and can survive well in another person, opening the door to transplants.

Radical advances over the past decade have seen the number of people surviving cancer for at least a decade rise to 50 percent and the team at The Crick want to make that 75 percent in the next fifteen years. Professor Charlie Swanton, of the Cancer Evolution and Genome Instability Laboratory, said the ability now to sequence tumours was heralding a new era of medicine tailor-made for a patient. He said, “It’s a very exciting time. The technology available to us now is just incredible. We’re able to sequence the genome of a tumour, understand its microenvironment, how it metabolizes, what cells are controlling the tumour, and how those can be manipulated. Using the body’s own immune cells to target the tumour is elegant because tumours evolve so quickly there is no way a pharmaceutical company can keep up with it, but the immune system has been evolving for over four billion years to do just that.”

Tumours evolve in a branched way, like trees, but scientist have recently found immune cells in their ‘trunks’ which could be crucial to battling the disease from the base up. Next year, Professor Swanton’s team begin trials to see if ramping up those specific cells could be effective in fighting lung cancer, saying “It’s personalised medicine taken to the absolute extreme. Each patient has a unique therapy, it’s pretty much impossible to have the same treatment because no two tumours are the same.”

The team is also studying a group of people known as ‘elite controllers’, who have genetic mutations which prevent them from developing cancer. In mice who have been genetically engineered to have the same mutations, it is almost impossible to induce skin cancer. “One of the pivotal breakthrough in HIV was the recognition of people with elite controllers who had mutations in receptors which rendered them resistant to infection and that changed the landscape utterly,” said Professor Hayday, “Bear in mind 30 years ago that was one in four so survival has doubled in my lifetime and I think it will double again over the next 30 years. The future is incredibly bright.”

He added, “We have a group in Sardinia who have a conspicuously low rate of cancers. Technology which allows you to sequence the genome opens the possibility to start looking at elite controllers and learn the pathways. There is every reason, despite the suffering that continues to plague the oncology wards, the family, the friends, the basis for optimism is extraordinary. I would go so far as to say that we might reach a point, maybe 20 years from now, where the vast majorities of cancers are rapidly treated diseases or long term chronic issues that you can manage. And I think the immune system will be essential in doing that. Between 1980 and 2010, 519,000 cancer deaths were avoided because of cancer research. If that’s not a note for optimism I don’t know what is.”