In the past several years, we have heard much about immunotherapy as a new way to treat melanoma and other skin cancers. These possible advances have been in the making for several decades. Scientists such as Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., Carl H. June, M.D., and Michel Sadelain, M.D., Ph.D., have spent much of their careers, going back to the 1970s, looking for ways to use our own immune cells to fight cancer.
The body’s white blood cells, or T-cells, help keep the body healthy. When viruses, harmful bacteria, or other diseases enter the body, the T-cells are set in motion, latching on to invaders and killing them. But many cancer cells are different. They are mutated versions of our own cells, and therefore the immune system doesn’t always see them as invaders. Immunotherapy looks for ways to open the eyes of the T-cells so they target and kill cancer cells.
Much of the immunotherapy research to date has focused on genetically modifying your own T-cells to fight cancer. Sometimes, tumors and cancer cells can suppress the immune system. The immunotherapy technique to combat this inhibits this reaction, allowing the immune system to continue to do its job. Other immunotherapy techniques involve removing certain T-cells and genetically modifying them so they can recognize and fight the cancer. The T-cells are then reproduced in the lab and infused back to the patient. All of these techniques use your own immune cells to fight cancer.
Using a donor’s immune cells
Researchers at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and University of Oslo/Oslo University Hospital are working on a different approach, which was published in the journal Science in May 2016. They are using healthy immune cells from a donor to help fight cancer cells. The scientists worked with three patients with melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. First, they attempted to use the patients’ own immune cells to fight the cancer, but their T-cells did not recognize the cancer cells as invaders and did not attack them. Next, they experimented with immune cells from healthy, cancer-free individuals. These T-cells recognized the cancer cells as foreign.** Based on this research, they think we can use donor immune cells to strengthen a person’s immune system to recognize and then attack cancer cells.
The research continues
This study might be small, but holds real hope for the future.
"Our study shows that the principle of outsourcing cancer immunity to a donor is sound,” said study author Johanna Olweus, M.D., Ph.D., in a press release from the Netherlands Cancer Institute. “However, more work needs to be done before patients can benefit from this discovery … We are currently exploring high-throughput methods to identify the neo-antigens that the T cells can ‘see’ on the cancer and isolate the responding cells.”
“But the results showing that we can obtain cancer-specific immunity from the blood of healthy individuals are already very promising,” Dr. Olweus said.
Immunotherapy: Using the Immune System to Treat Cancer: National Cancer Institute
Setting the Body’s ‘Serial Killers’ Loose on Cancer: New York Times
Targeting of cancer neoantigens with donor-derived T cell receptor repertoires: Science