Cancer Immunotherapy in Action

I noticed a good example of the state of the art in immunotherapy aimed at cancer today:

Researchers at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center created a large, well armed battalion of tumor-seeking immune system cells and watched, in real time using Positron Emission Tomography (PET), as the special forces traveled throughout the body to locate and attack dangerous melanomas.

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"We're trying to genetically engineer the immune system to become a cancer killer and then image how the immune system operates at the same time," said Dr. Antoni Ribas, an associate professor of hematology/oncology, a researcher at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and the senior author of the study.

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"The novelty of our work is that we were able to pack together the cancer specific T cell receptor and the PET reporter genes in a single vector and use it in mice with an intact immune system that closely resembles what we would see in real patients," said Dr. Richard Koya, an assistant professor of surgical oncology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine and first author of the study. "We were also gladly surprised to see the targeted tumors literally melt away and disappear, underscoring the power of the combined approach of immune and gene therapy to control cancer."

Equally impressive work of this sort is presently taking place in laboratories around the world. Cancer cells exhibit characteristic biochemical differences that distinguish them from normal cells, and the immune system can be directed to attack and destroy targets in the body based on those differences. The quality of our immune systems is already very important to long term health, but the emergence of therapies that harness the destructive powers of immune cells will make it ever more important to also build treatments that can reverse the characteristic decline of the immune system with age. An immunotherapy is only as good as the immune system it is working with - and cancer is predominantly a disease of old age.

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