As wonder drugs go, the idea of a single medicine that can cure literally all types of cancer has got to be right up there in the “too good to be true” bracket. And while such a panacea may still be a little way off, a team of researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany have taken a significant step in that direction.
Detailing their research in the journal Nature, the study authors explain how they managed to coax the immune system of mice into attacking and destroying a wide variety of cancer types. Very low doses of the treatment were then used on three human patients in order to test how well it is tolerated by patients.
All three participants reacted well to the vaccine, experiencing slight flu-like symptoms that pale in comparison to the horrible side-effects normally associated with chemotherapy. More interestingly, despite the fact that the patients received a dose of the vaccine that was considered too low to have any therapeutic value, the researchers noted that it did stimulate their immune systems, producing limited anti-cancer benefits.
The treatment is the latest in a line of immunotherapy techniques that are currently being developed to fight cancer by recruiting the body’s own immune system. In this case, the researchers placed sections of a tumor’s genetic RNA code inside nanoparticles of fat, which were then injected into the mice's bloodstream.
After detecting this RNA – which was protected by the fat – the mice’s dendritic cells were stimulated to release a chemical called interferon-α (IFNα), which activated white blood cells called T-cells to attack and destroy all tumor cells containing this particular genetic code.
The results – in mice at least – were pretty staggering. For example, mice that had been genetically engineered to become riddled with lung cancer were completely tumor-free 20 days after receiving the vaccine.
Because it’s relatively simple to obtain RNA samples from every type of cancer, the researchers say there’s no reason why this same technique can’t be used to create vaccines for all cancer types. However, it’s important to remember that just because a treatment works for mice doesn’t necessarily mean it will also work for humans.
In spite of this, the early results are positive: of the three people who received low doses of the vaccine, one experienced a slight reduction in tumor size, while another – who had recently had their tumor removed – remained cancer-free seven months later. The third patient had eight tumors spread across the skin and lungs, all of which were found to be “clinically stable” following vaccination.
Before getting too excited, however, more work will be needed involving larger numbers of participants and higher doses of the vaccine.