The cure for cancer hasn’t been discovered yet, but a recent scientific breakthrough gives hope for improved treatment for leukemia and possibly other cancers, too.
Cancer – The Ongoing Battle
Cancer is the timeless enemy.
According to the National Cancer Institute, about 1.6 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2015 and about 589,000 people are likely to die from it.
In a normally functioning body, the cells keep dividing into new cells when the body requires. When old and damaged cells die, they are replaced by new cells.
In cancer, the cells begin multiplying relentlessly and spread out to surrounding tissues. Over time, the cells exhibit increasingly abnormal behavior – damaged and old cells no longer perish and new cells keep forming and dividing.
These extraneous cells may eventually become cancerous tumors.
However, not all cancers physically indicate their presence through tumors. Leukemia, or blood cancer, is one example.
The current treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy among others, have proven to be highly effective.
However, they come with many side effects, some of which can be very serious. They do a solid job of inhibiting the growth of malignant cancer cells, but they also damage and kill the surrounding healthy cells.
While finding a cure for cancer would be the ultimate wish fulfilment, it still feels like a pipe dream.
However, there might just be a way of turning certain cancer cells into antibodies that could banish the remaining malignant cells to extinction.
According to a 2015 study conducted by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, such a groundbreaking cancer therapy might be achievable, after all.
A Chance Discovery
As part of another study, the scientists were working to find therapies for certain cell and blood disorders. For this purpose, they exposed immature bone marrow cells to antibodies, hoping they would trigger the bone marrow cells to grow and mature into a specific variety of blood cells.
Their hopes were fulfilled — the antibodies had the desired effect.
However, what they discovered next would take their study in a completely new direction.
Much to their astonishment, certain antibodies had a completely new and wonderfully strange effect on the bone marrow cells.
They triggered the maturation of the bone marrow cells into completely new cell forms – the types of cell forms the scientists weren’t expecting at all.
This raised a critical question: Can this method be used to transform malignant leukemia cells into noncancerous cells?
A Way Forward
The TSRI scientists began a new study. They tested 20 of the newly discovered radical growth-activating antibodies on leukemia cells from human patients, and found one antibody in particular had an incredibly potent effect on cancer cells.
This particular antibody, when exposed to the leukemia cells, matured and converted them into vital support cells of the immune system called dendritic cells.
While this in itself was a discovery of mammoth proportions, that was not all they found. The scientists noted that the dendritic cells matured further with prolonged exposure to antibodies in other lab conditions.
As they matured, they turned into “killer cells” and bore a high resemblance to the natural killer (NK) cells innately produced by our immune system to fight cancers.
Possibilities for Leukemia Treatment
This discovery is especially vital to leukemia treatment, as compared to treatment of other types of cancers. This is simply because of the way leukemia works in the body.
It grows and persists due to the proliferation abilities of certain types of cells central to leukemia’s progression– the cancer stem cells.
These cells possess the remarkable ability of maintaining themselves while multiplying into thousands of more cancerous cells.
While the cells produced from this proliferation are not capable of producing further cells, they are still abundant and highly potent.
The problem with current treatments for leukemia like chemotherapy, radiation and bone marrow transplants is their inefficacy in identifying and destroying all cancer stem cells.
Also, these cells have such strong built-in defenses that they may survive these treatments. The cells that aren’t eradicated eventually multiply again, leading to a relapse of leukemia. This is the reason that the survival rate in leukemia patients rarely goes beyond 5 years.
This is why the discovery by TSRI scientists is so important. The antibody’s ability to differentiate cancer stem cells, combined with chemotherapy, radiation and transplants, could provide highly effective and focused treatment. This could significantly improve the survival rate, and may even translate into a cure.
“Birds of a Feather…”
The scientists made another interesting discovery. The leukemia cells that transformed into NK cells, when put in lab conditions, removed 15 percent of the other surrounding leukemia cells in a matter of 24 hours, without unleashing similar destruction on surrounding breast cancer cells.
This shows that the NK cells attack those of their own kind.
The reason behind this is unclear. However, this might be indicative of many more still-undiscovered antibodies that exhibit a similar effect on certain other cancer cells and turn them into NK cells, which will then attack cancer cells of their own kind.
The TSRI scientists list certain advantages of treatment based on this new discovery:
- Since this treatment depends entirely on antibodies, using them is easy as they require little to no modification.
- Since the antibodies specifically single out cancer stem cells, and the resulting NK cells specifically attack cells of their own kind, this treatment is highly focused and significantly reduces the risk of adverse side effects occurring with other treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.
- Since every leukemia cell has the potential of turning into an NK cell, the success of this treatment might not only significantly reduce, but may completely wipe out, the cancer cells.
TSRI is currently in talks with pharmaceutical companies to test this on human patients immediately following the preclinical toxicity tests.