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New treatment for pancreatic cancer developed by UK researchers

Category: Cancer Detection and Tumor Markers

Following lab tests that used a drug that erodes the barrier surrounding cancer tumors, researchers have possibly discovered a new method for cancer treatment. Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Scienes this procedure permits the human body's immune system to attack and destroy pancreatic cancer cells.

The team of scientists from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute at the University of Cambridge developed a technique that allows cancer-attacking T cells to pass through the tumors' protective barriers and destroy the malicious cells. Initial tests of the treatment, combined with an antibody that blocks a second target, resulted in almost total elimination of cancer cells in only one week. The success of this method is not restricted solely to pancreatic cancer tumors, as it could potentially be used in other types of cancers.

Led by Douglas Fearon, Ph.D., the research team established that the barrier was created by a specific protein that materialized from a connective tissue cell called carcinoma-associated fibroblast, or CAF. The protein coated the cells and acted like a biological shield that drove away T cells. This effect was counteracted by the implementation of the drug, which prevented the T cells from interacting with the protein.

"We observed that T cells were absent from the part of the tumor containing the cancer cells that were coated with chemokine, and the principal source of the chemokine was the CAFs. Interestingly, depleting the CAFs from the pancreatic cancer had a similar effect of allowing immune control of the tumor growth," explained Fearon.

In the past, patients with pancreatic cancer have not responded positively to immunotherapy, even though it is an effective form of treatment for other solid tumors. Much like the animal form of pancreatic cancer that the researchers tested, the tumors in humans also create this barrier.

By administering the drug along with immunotherapy antibodies, the scientists enhanced the activation of the T cells. This resulted in the size of the tumor and the number of cancer cells decreasing immensely. Within one week, the remaining tumor was left with nothing but premalignant and inflammatory cells.

This new combination treatment of immunotherapy and the drug allows the patient's body to fight cancer with its own immune system. Potentially, it could greatly improve future treatment of solid tumors.

What is immunotherapy?
This type of cancer treatment comes in a variety of forms that each work in different ways. Some train the immune system to specifically attack cancer cells, while others simply boost it in a general manner. Typically, immunotherapy works to strengthen the immune system's response to cancer cells and, sometimes, gives it man-made proteins to bolster its defensive mechanisms.

This method works better for some types of cancers more so than others. While it may be used on its own, many cancers are treated with a combination of immunotherapy and some other types of cancer treatment, such as prescription medication or radiation.

Although there are various ways to administer immunotherapy, there are three forms that are the most common. These are cancer vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and non-specific immunotherapies.

Cancer vaccines are put into the body to spark an immune response against certain diseases. Even though vaccines are typically thought of as medicine given to healthy people to prevent dangerous infections, some are effective in treating cancer. Monoclonal antibodies are man-made versions of proteins found in the immune system. Because they can be designed for specificity, these antibodies can be very helpful in treating cancer. Lastly, non-specific antibodies work to bolster the immune system in a traditional manner. However, this might still result in a stronger defense against cancer cells in the body.

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