Researchers at the University of Louisville have been testing a protein-based molecule they originally developed to boost T cells as a cancer treatment. Whilst testing the effectiveness in mice, they found that it actually protected them from developing cancer in the first place.
The team developed the drug SA-4-1BBL to be used in conjunction with adaptive T cells which would be trained to target and destroy tumours. However, when they gave the drug by itself to healthy mice, and then exposed them to cervical and lung cancer cells, the animals were protected against tumour development for more than eight weeks. The findings were reported in the journal Cancer Research.
"The novelty we are reporting is the ability of this molecule to generate an immune response that patrols the body for the presence of rare tumour cells and to eliminate cancer before it takes hold in the body," said Haval Shirwan, a professor at the University of Louisville Institute for Cellular Therapeutics.
Cell cancer treatments have dramatically changed the oncology field over the past two years. However, they require removing T cells from individual patients and then training them to recognise and attack their cancers which is problematic because it is costly and time-consuming.
The research team is encouraged by the fact that their protein molecule appears to stimulate the immune system without the need to also inject T cells. In addition, the drug didn’t cause significant side effects in mice and it’s unlikely to cause an immune overreaction because it only activates disease-fighting cells which exist naturally in the body.
In the future, Shirwan hopes to do further testing on the potential of the drug for cancer prevention, although he acknowledges that choosing the right patient population for clinical trials will be challenging. One solution is to test it in people who are genetically predisposed to certain cancers or those with precancerous lesions.