Scientists from the University of Cardiff have discovered part of our immune system that could potentially be harnessed to treat all types of cancer. This potential treatment has not yet been tested in humans, but has been shown to kill prostate, breast, lung and other cancers in the laboratory. Researchers suggest that the treatment has “enormous potential” for the future treatment of cancer, although this exciting work is still in the very early stages.

Our immune system defends our bodies against infection and disease, and it also attacks cancer cells. The University of Cardiff scientists have been looking for “unconventional” new ways the immune system attacks tumours. Their research, published in the journal Nature Immunology, describes a previously unidentified type of immune cell, called a T cell. T cells travel around the body in the blood to identify anything that could be a potential threat to the body and needs eliminating. This newly-discovered T cell has been found to attack a wide range of cancer cells, and raises the prospect of a ‘one size fits all’ cancer treatment.

T cells have proteins called receptors on their surface. These receptors enable them to identify various substances in the blood. The receptors on the newly-discovered T cell are able to identify and kill a wide range of cancer cells from the substances they release. The T cell has so far been tested in the laboratory and has been found to identify and kill lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer cells.

Research is ongoing to determine how the T cell does this. Receptors on the newly-discovered T cell bind to a particular protein molecule called MR1. MR1 can be found on the surface of every cell in the human body. However, the researchers think that MR1 flags to the immune system that there is something wrong with a cancer cell, and that its metabolism is distorted.

It is suggested that this new treatment could potentially work in a similar way to chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy, in which genetically engineered T cells are used to seek out and destroy cancer cells. A blood sample would be taken from the cancer patient and genetically modified to enable them to find the MR1 receptor. These genetically modified T cells would be grown in the laboratory and then injected back into the patient to destroy the cancer cells.

It is important to note that this research has so far only been conducted in animals and cancer cells in the laboratory. More safety checks would be needed before human clinical trials can start.

Daniel Davis, a professor of immunology at the University of Manchester, said: “At the moment, this is very basic research and not close to actual medicines for patients.

“There is no question that it’s a very exciting discovery, both for advancing our basic knowledge about the immune system and for the possibility of future new medicines.”

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