Friday, 23 June 2023, 10:54
Scientists in the United States have designed artificial white blood cells capable of killing 80 per cent of solid tumours. The therapy, still in the research phase, not only cleanses the body of malignant cells, but these 'prefabricated' lymphocytes are also capable of activating a defence system against the disease. Mice were used in experiments carried out on breast, brain and skin tumours.
The research was published on Wednesday, 14 June in Nature Biomedical Engineering, one of the journals of the Nature group, and emphasises the fact that it is a new therapy with a dual function: to eliminate cancer cells and to teach the immune system to recognise and kill them at the time of the disease and in the future if necessary.
The work comes from the Biophysical Engineering laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania led by Dennis Discher and was supported by the US National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the Physical Sciences - Oncology Network and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Despite the many advances that have been made against oncological diseases, cancer continues to be one of the leading causes of death in advanced societies. In Spain, 113,662 deaths were caused by the more than 200 pathologies known by the generic term cancer in 2020, making this health problem the second leading cause of death (22%), behind, but very close to, cardiovascular complications. In some regions, such as the Basque Country, tumours are already the leading cause of death.
The breakthrough achieved by the US scientists is particularly interesting because solid tumours are often difficult to treat. The first line of treatment is usually surgery, which has a drawback. Removing the tumour does not ensure that all the cancerous cells are eliminated, nor does it ensure that the remaining cells cannot mutate and spread throughout the body (metastasis).
The therapy proposed by the Pennsylvania specialists, which is "more targeted and holistic", could serve to "replace the blunt approach of surgery", they say, "with one that eliminates the cancer from the inside, using our own cells".
Designing molecules that pass through masses is a scientific challenge in the fight against solid tumours. The group led by scientist Dennis Discher, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has had the ingenuity to turn adversity into benefit.
"Instead of creating a new molecule to do the job, we decided to use cells that eat invaders: macrophages," Discher said.
Macrophages are white blood cells that destroy and devour invading bugs, viruses, bacteria, even certain implants. They are part of the immune system's cellular squadron. They have the added advantage that their innate immune response teaches our body to remember and attack invading cells in the future as well, which – thanks to this test – makes their action a kind of vaccine against cancer. One problem is that they can't attack what they can't see.
"They recognise cancer cells as part of the human body, not as invading substances," said Larry Doling, a postdoctoral fellow who co-authored the study with his professors Discher and Robert D. Bent, also a chemical and biomolecular engineer.
What the group did to get this type of white blood cell to distinguish and attack cancer cells was to investigate the molecular pathway that controls cell-to-cell communication. They concluded that this process was governed by the interaction between a macrophage protein called SIRPa and another protein on the cells, called CD47. Disabling that connection was the key to designing the therapy.
The researchers have also found that this treatment works even better in combination with other currently available antibody therapies. They are so convinced of the good results of their work that they are confident that in the future patients will be treated for their disease with these modified cells.
Macrophage therapy, they venture, is set to be the key to the development of cancer vaccines, treatments that teach the body to recognise tumour cells, destroy them and strengthen it against new attacks.
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