Cancer: More targeted use of immunotherapy
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Doctors are increasingly fighting cancer by stimulating patients’ immune systems. SNSF-supported researchers have now discovered a method for predicting the likelihood of treatment success.

Immunotherapy changes a patient’s immune system to allow it to attack cancer cells and either destroy them or at least keep them from growing. But the therapy only works for a minority of patients. Researchers supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) have now discovered how to better predict who will respond to the therapy and who will not.

Unmasking tumours

The key is a protein known as PD-1, which sits on the surface of human immune cells. Until recently, PD-1 was regarded as their Achilles heel because cancer cells attach to the protein, thereby protecting themselves from immune system attack. “It’s as though the tumour were wearing camouflage”, says project lead Alfred Zippelius, Deputy Head of Medical Oncology at University Hospital Basel. Immunotherapy blocks the attachment site so the immune cells can “see” the cancer again.

An international research group led by Zippelius has now shown that immune cells with the most PD-1 are best able to detect tumours (*). In addition, these PD-1-rich cells secrete a signalling compound that attracts additional immune

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