Scientists find key to ‘turbo-charging’ immune system to kill all cancers

Imperial College scientists are developing a gene therapy designed to boost immune cells.

A protein which ramps up the immune system has been discovered by scientists at Imperial College London

A protein which ramps up the immune system has been discovered by scientists at Imperial College London

A protein which ‘turbo-charges’ the immune system so that it can fight off any cancer or virus has been discovered by scientists.

In a breakthrough described as a ‘game-changer’ for cancer treatment, researchers at Imperial College found a previously unknown molecule which boosts the body’s ability to fight off chronic illnesses.

Scientists at Imperial College London, who led the study, are now developing a gene therapy based on the protein and hope to begin human trials in three years.

“This is exciting because we have found a completely different way to use the immune system to fight cancer,” said Professor Philip Ashton-Rickardt, from the Section of Immunobiology in the Department of Medicine at Imperial, who led the study.

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“It could be a game-changer for treating a number of different cancers and viruses.

“This is a completely unknown protein. Nobody had ever seen it before or was even aware that it existed. It looks and acts like no other protein.”

The protein – named lymphocyte expansion molecule, or LEM, promotes the spread of cancer killing ‘T cells’ by generating large amounts of energy.

Normally when the immune system detects cancer it goes into overdrive trying to fight the disease, flooding the body with T cells. But it quickly runs out of steam.

However the new protein causes a massive energy boost which makes T cells in such great numbers that the cancer cannot fight them off.

It also causes a boost of immune memory cells which are able to recognise tumours and viruses they have encountered previously so there is less chance that they will return.

The team made the discovery while screening mice with genetic mutations. They found one type produced ten times the number of cancer-fighting T cells, suppressing infections and becoming resistant to cancer.

Researchers found that the mice with enhanced immunity produced high levels of the unknown protein which is also found in humans.

They are hoping to produce a gene therapy whereby T cells of cancer patients could be enhanced with the protein and then injected back into the body. It could end the need for harsh chemotherapies as the body itself would be fighting the disease, rather than toxic drugs.

Dr Mike Turner, Head of Infection and Immunobiology at The Wellcome Trust, said: “The discovery of a protein that could boost the immune response to not only cancer, but also to viruses, is a fascinating one.

“Further investigation in animal models is needed before human trials can commence, but there is potential for a new type of treatment that capitalises on the immune system’s innate ability to detect and kill abnormal cells.”

Charities said the protein showed ‘great promise’ and were eager to see if it could be translated into humans.

Dr Alan Worsley, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “This exciting work in mice is still at an early stage and only looked at one type of cancer.

“Cancer often finds a way to suppress the immune system, but drugs that overcome this and allow immune cells to target cancer show great promise. Research into the biology of the immune system could help develop more effective treatments by increasing the number of cancer-killing immune cells.

“The researchers now need to figure out how to develop drugs that target this molecule, and whether doing so would be safe and effective in cancer patients.”

Type 1 diabetes associated with increased risk of certain cancers

Type 1 diabetes is associated with an elevated risk of certain cancers, based on results of a five-country study.

Compared to the general population, the risk of stomach cancer was elevated in both men (hazard ratio [HR], 1.23, 95 percent CI, 1.04-1.46) and women (HR, 1.78, 95 percent CI, 1.49-2.13) with type 1 diabetes, as was the risk of liver cancer (HR, 2.00, 95 percent CI, 1.67-2.40 for men and HR, 1.55, 95 percent CI, 1.14-2.10 for women) and thyroid cancer (HR, 1.25, 95 percent CI, 0.97-1.61 and HR, 1.51, 95 percent CI, 1.34-1.72 for men and women, respectively). [Diabetologia 2016;doi:10.1007/s00125-016-3884-9]

Women with type 1 diabetes had a higher risk of oesophageal cancer (HR, 1.79, 95 percent CI, 1.25-2.56), while both men (HR, 1.30, 95 percent CI, 1.12-1.49) and women (HR, 1.47, 95 percent CI, 1.23-1.77) experienced elevated risks of kidney cancer.

Women with type 1 diabetes had an elevated risk of endometrial cancer (HR, 1.42, 95 percent CI, 1.27-1.58) but not breast cancer (HR, 0.90, 95 percent CI, 0.85-0.94). Men with type 1 diabetes had a lower risk of prostate cancer (HR, 0.56, 95 percent CI, 0.51-0.61).

The highest elevation in overall cancer risk occurred the first year after type 1 diabetes diagnosis (HR, 2.28, 95 percent CI, 1.87-2.78 for men and HR, 2.34, 95 percent CI, 2.00-2.74 for women), following which the risk declined (HR, 1.23, 95 percent CI, 0.95-1.60 for men and HR, 1.03, 95 percent CI, 0.83-1.29 for women).

For most cancers, increasing duration of diabetes was associated with reduced risk, though duration did not appear to affect breast cancer incidence. However, the risk for endometrial cancer was still elevated in type 1 diabetics up to about 18 years later.

Individuals from five countries (Australia, Denmark, Finland, Scotland and Sweden) who had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes before age 40 participated in this study. A total of 9,149 cancers occurred in this group.

According to the study authors, most previous studies assessing the link between diabetes and cancer have not discerned between diabetes type, though it is more likely that the subjects had type 2 diabetes, given its prevalence.

In terms of site-specific cancers, the risk was similar in type 1 diabetes in the present study and all types of diabetes as demonstrated in previous studies, leading the authors to suggest that a similar mechanism may be behind the diabetes-cancer association.

This is the largest study to assess the link between type 1 diabetes and cancer incidence, said the authors, who encouraged further research to identify if the increased risk of cancer extends to increased risk of cancer-related deaths in type 1 diabetics.

Forget X-Rays, Soon We’ll Be Popping Pills to Scan for Certain Cancers

Getting a colonoscopy is no fun. As a procedure that focuses on one of the body’s least-pleasant organs, it’s invasive, uncomfortable, and for many of us, an unavoidable medical necessity. But it might not be that way for long.

According to Quartz, a medical company called Cap Check is in the process of testing a high-tech colonoscopy alternative that could drastically change the way doctors test for colon cancer. Unlike the standard procedure, which involves a visual survey of the interior of the colon by way of a camera inserted rectally, Cap Check’s method claims to be less invasive and more effective at the same time. All a patient does is swallow a pill.

image via (cc) flickr user thenationalguard

…Okay, so it’s no ordinary pill. In fact, Cap Check’s capsule is much more akin to a tiny x-ray machine than your average aspirin. Once it’s swallowed, the high-tech pill travels into the patient’s colon (as most things that are swallowed eventually do), where it is able to scan the interior of the organ, and transmit that data to a dermal patch the patient wears on their torso. Once the pill has (ahem) completed its journey, a patient just lets nature take its course. The patch, meanwhile, has all the data from the pill’s scan, which can then be handed over to a doctor, who can now examine a 3-D rendered model of the colon’s interior.

As creator Yoav Kimchy explained to Quartz, the edible x-ray machine is advantageous not only for being a significantly less intense experience for the patient (radiation-wise, it’s around the same level as a standard chest x-ray), but also because it affords physicians an inside-out, unobstructed view of what’s happening on the interior of the colon, without any “murky water” to contend with. What’s more, Kimchy estimates the procedure will be less expensive than a traditional colonoscopy, as well.

The pill-and-patch combo is currently in the midst of European clinical trials and, barring any unexpected problems, should begin testing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in around a year and a half from now. In the meantime, the technology behind the micro-scanners continues to progress. So while Cap Check’s pill is designed specifically to detect signs of colon cancer, perhaps some day we’ll be popping pills for *all* our x-ray needs.

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Scientists find early warning signs of several cancers in smokers’ cheeks .

By studying the genetic changes undergone by women who smoke, scientists in the UK have figured out how to detect several types of cancer around the body with almost perfect sensitivity, just by analysing a person’s cheek cells.

The team wanted to investigate how epigenetic changes – changes to a person’s DNA that switch genes on and off, caused by environmental factors such as exposure to cigarette smoke – can be identified early on in epithelial cancers, which encompass 80 to 90 percent of all known cancer types. They say that easily accessible cheek cells could make detecting the early warning signs of well-hidden cancers like ovary, breast and endometrial much simpler in the future.
“Our work shows that smoking has a major impact on the epigenome of normal cells that are directly exposed to the carcinogen,” lead researcher Andrew Teschendorff, from the University College London Cancer Institute, said in a press release. “Of particular significance is that these epigenetic changes are also seen in both smoking-related and non-smoking related cancers, pointing towards a universal cancer program. This research gets us closer to understanding the very first steps in carcinogenesis and in future may provide us with much-needed tests for risk prediction and early detection.”

Teschendorff and his team looked at the epigenetic changes that were occurring in cheek – or buccal – samples taken from 790 women all born in 1946. They found that those who smoked were more likely to display alterations in their epigenomes that were associated with several types of cancers, even those that are not usually linked to smoking. Through their analysis, they were able to come up with an epigenetic ‘signature’ for smoking.

“By looking for this signature, the researchers found they could differentiate between normal and cancerous tissue with near absolute certainty, including cancers in other parts of the body,” Esha Dey reports at Live Science. “The signature could also be used to predict if a pre-cancerous lesion would progress to a full-blown invasive cancer, the researchers said.”

Publishing in the journal JAMA Oncology, the team says that compared to blood samples taken from the female volunteers, the cheek cell samples showed a 40-fold increase in abnormal genetic activities, which makes them a better and more reliable indicator of these early warning signs. They report in the press release that their cheek cell test is able to discriminate between normal and cancerous tissue with almost 100 percent sensitivity and 100 percent specificity, regardless of the organ in which the cancer arose.

“These are significant results for our core interest, which is decoding women’s cancers. We are a big step closer now to unravelling how environmental factors cause cancer,” said Teschendorff. “These results pave the way for other studies in which easily accessible cells can be used as proxies to highlight epigenetic changes that may indicate a risk of developing cancer at a site where cells are inaccessible. This is incredibly exciting for women’s cancers such as ovary, breast and endometrial cancer where predicting the cancer risk is a big challenge.”

The good news for ex-smokers is that the team’s results showed that smoking-related damage experienced by the women in their analyses had been reversed in those who had quit smoking 10 years before the samples were collected, which means it’s never too late to lower your cancer risk if you’re thinking about quitting.

Life choices ‘behind many cancers’

unhealthy habits

More than four in 10 cancers – 600,000 in the UK alone – could be prevented if people led healthier lives, say experts.

Latest figures from Cancer Research UK show smoking is the biggest avoidable risk factor, followed by unhealthy diets.

The charity is urging people to consider their health when making New Year resolutions.

Limiting alcohol intake and doing regular exercise is also good advice.

According to the figures spanning five years from 2007 to 2011, more than 300,000 cases of cancer recorded were linked to smoking.

Key risk factors

A further 145,000 were linked to unhealthy diets containing too much processed food.

Obesity contributed to 88,000 cases and alcohol to 62,200.

Sun damage to the skin and physical inactivity were also contributing factors.

Man using weighing scales

Prof Max Parkin, a Cancer Research UK statistician based at Queen Mary University of London, said: “There’s now little doubt that certain lifestyle choices can have a big impact on cancer risk, with research around the world all pointing to the same key risk factors.

“Of course everyone enjoys some extra treats during the Christmas holidays so we don’t want to ban mince pies and wine but it’s a good time to think about taking up some healthy habits for 2015.

“Leading a healthy lifestyle can’t guarantee someone won’t get cancer but we can stack the odds in our favour by taking positive steps now that will help decrease our cancer risk in future.”

Public Health England says a healthy lifestyle can play a vital role in reducing cancer risk. It says campaigns such as Smokefree, Dry January and Change4Life Sugar Swaps all aim to raise public awareness.