Friday, January 27, 2012

Vaccines to significantly improve cancer treatment

Vaccines are mostly used to protect people from infectious diseases by training the immune system. However, it is also possible to train the immune system in order to make it kill cancer cells. Many research groups are developing cancer vaccines, but have so far seen limited success. One of the successful ones made it possible to treat brain tumours with a vaccine, as well as one for breast and pancreatic cancer. The biggest problem with enabling the immune system to fight cancer cells, is that they usually don't possess foreign material that can be used as instigator of an immune response. In addition, tumours have found ways to evade the body's defence systems. Researchers from Trinity College in Dublin have managed to make a cancer vaccine more potent. It could prove to be a big step forward for cancer treatment.

Killer cells
Vaccines developed by the Dublin scientists aim to activate T lymphocytes, which are tasked with killing infected or malicious cells. Hence why they are more commonly known as 'killer cells'. To get these T cells to actively kill cancer cells, a mixture of molecules was used that affects the immune system. However, they do not state which ones they used, and what their method is based on exactly. There are many known molecules that induce inflammation or otherwise activate parts of the immune system. The trick is to get them to work in the way you want.

Pretty much all vaccines work in the same way, though different strategies can be explored. All of them aim to activate the immune system to target a specific kind of pathogen. Usually they are viruses or bacteria. As said, with the 'pathogen' being a body's own cell, things get trickier, but the immune system does provide the right arsenal to battle these malicious cancer cells. The aforementioned T cells are required to clear infected or damaged cells, while B cells churn out antibodies that bind to pathogens, to neutralize and target them for extermination. There are many more cell types involved with the immune system, and they all play together using various chemical signals. The network of cells and their interactions has not been fully uncovered yet: we keep finding new variations and new functions.

In order to get the vaccines into the clinic, agreements have been made with a company to get them there. However, it is unknown when the first trials in human patients can start, nor which cancers they will focus on. Still it seems to be a decent step in the right direction for cancer treatment, because vaccines are usually safer and produce less side effects than common cancer therapies, such as chemotherapy. More tests are of course needed to confirm their usability.

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