In Summary
  • Tests conducted in the laboratory on mice and in human cells lab suggest the world could be on the verge of replacing tailor-made treatment for different cancers.

  • The finding raises the prospect of cancer treatment that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population.

  • A harmless virus is used to deliver genes into the T-cell to modify them to recognise and target cancer cells.

Scientists have discovered a new type of cells that can recognise and kill most types of cancer, raising hopes for a universal cancer therapy.

Researchers at Cardiff University in the UK suggested in a new study that they have discovered a new type of immune cells called T-cell that can be used to treat a wide range of cancers compared to currently available treatments.

Although the researchers behind the discovery published in the Nature Immunology journal emphasise that testing is still at an early stage because it is yet to be tested on living patients, this discovery offers hope of a ''one-size-fits-all'' cancer therapy. In laboratory studies, immune cells equipped with the new receptor were shown to kill lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancers.

Tests conducted in the laboratory on mice and in human cells lab suggest the world could be on the verge of replacing tailor-made treatment for different cancers.

The finding raises the prospect of cancer treatment that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population.

“Previously, nobody believed this could be possible,” said Professor Andrew Sewell, the lead author on the study from Cardiff University's School of Medicine.

The immune system is the body’s natural defence against infection and T-cells are an essential part of man’s natural immune system as they are vital in hosting an immune response against infection. T-cells have “receptors” on their surface that allow them to “see” at a chemical level.

“We’re the first to describe a T-cell that finds MR1 in cancer cells — that hasn't been done before, this is the first of its kind,” research fellow Garry Dolton told the BBC.

Cancer has become the leading cause of illness and death globally, and especially in Kenya, with as many as 133 people being diagnosed every day, as the scourge of cancer grows in the country.

Every day, about 90 Kenyans die from cancer, with many having been diagnosed when the disease was too advanced to treat. Last year, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer recorded 9.6 million cancer deaths. The last release of the Globocan database (September 2018) includes estimates of the incidence, mortality and prevalence from 36 types of cancer and for all cancers combined in 185 countries worldwide.

Governors last year called on President Kenyatta to declare it a national disaster.

While looking for “unconventional” and previously undiscovered ways the immune system naturally attacks tumours, the scientists stumbled upon a T-cell inside human blood that can scan the body to determine whether there is a threat that needs to be eliminated.

Unlike existing therapies that engineer immune cells to fight specific types of cancer, this one could attack a wide range of cancers.

 “We hope this new TCR may provide us with a different route to target and destroy a wide range of cancers in all individuals,” added Prof Sewell.

Although it is said to be too early a stage to say if it would work or translate into actual medicines for patients, Lucia Mori and Gennaro De Libero, from the University of Basel in Switzerland, said the research had “great potential”.

“We are very excited about the immunological functions of this new T-cell population and the potential use of their TCRs in tumour cell therapy,” they said.

Currently, available cancer therapies are only useful for some forms of leukaemia, and do not work for solid tumours, which account for most cancers.

In cancer immunotherapy, the T-cells are removed, modified and returned to the patient’s blood to find and destroy cancer cells. The most famous example is CAR-T, a drug made by genetically engineering a patient’s T-cells to seek out and destroy cancer.

Whereas CAR-T can have dramatic results that transform some patients from being terminally ill to being in complete remission, it is costly for many patients especially those living in low and middle-income countries like Kenya.

Dr Andrew Odhiambo, an oncologist specialising in treating cancers using targeted therapy, says the cost of some immunotherapies can be as high as Sh500,000.

So how would it work in practice?

Blood is taken from the patient. T-cells are filtered out.

A harmless virus is used to deliver genes into the T-cell to modify them to recognise and target cancer cells.

The modified cells are then duplicated in vast quantities in the laboratory using the same process used to make CAR-T therapies.

The modified CAR-T cells are then injected back into the patient.