Health news: Cancer's 'Achilles heel' discovered

(Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett)A tray containing cancer cells sits on an optical microscope in the Nanomedicine Lab at UCL's School of Pharmacy in London

Researchers have recently developed a way to find the "Achilles heel" of cancer tumor. Once these unique markings are identified, scientists will know how to get the body's immune system to directly attack the deadly disease.

The new study, which was funded by the Cancer Research U.K., is believed to have the potential to open new possibilities in treating cancer. However, the researchers would still need to test it on humans. If successful, they hope that their methods would be used in many patients within the next couple of years.

Other experts who weighed in on this new research admitted that it looks promising in theory, but how to translate it to the real world could pose some complications.

One of the challenges the researchers must address is cancer heterogeneity in which tumor cells are not identical to each other at all. Each cell is even scientifically described as a tree with "trunk" mutations that branch off. This is why even when doctors have declared a patient cancer-free , the cancer could still possibly come back.

The aforementioned study from the University College London targets the way into these "trunk" mutations that change the proteins called antigens found on the surface of cancer cells.

In reference to the work, professor Charles Swanton from the UCL Cancer Institute, who is part of the research team, is optimistic. "This is exciting," he said. "Now we can prioritise and target tumor antigens that are present in every cell — the Achilles heels of these highly complex cancers."

He further added that the study "takes personalized medicine to its absolute limit, where each patient would have a unique, bespoke treatment."

The researchers suggested two approaches in targeting the trunk mutations. One is through the development of cancer vaccines that could train a patient's immune system to spot the mutations. The vaccines, however, should be uniquely created for each patient. The second method is to identify the immune cells that have already spotted these mutations, multiply them in a laboratory and bring them back into the patient's system.

The results of their study were published in Science.

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