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  1. ITV Report

Scientists 're-engineer' immune systems for better and safer cancer treatment

Cardiff University researchers have demonstrated a new way of re-engineering the immune system to target cancer, which they say could pave the way for a generation of drugs 'unprecedented' in safety and effectiveness.

Targeting cancer by harnessing the patient's own immune system is known as 'immunotherapy' Credit: PA / File photo

The researchers say they used powerful X-ray technology to engineer an enhanced kind of white blood cell - known as a T-Cell - capable of targeting cancerous tissue whilst minimising contact with healthy tissue, which can prove fatal.

So what is T-cell therapy?

Targeting cancer using T-cells is a growing means of treating cancer, but without modification the cells are limited in their capacity to fight the disease. This is because of their natural inability to attack the body's own tissue - and thus cancer cells.

To overcome this, scientists have generated a molecule on the surface of T-cells that can act like highly sensitive fingertips, probing the body for signs of disease.

Is it effective?

This approach has been trialled for a wide range of cancers, but remained potentially dangerous to participants. For example, in 2013 a New York based trial had to suspend patient recruitment following the deaths of two patients who received the newly modified T-cells, but suffered lethal damage to their heart tissue.

Targeting cancer using modified T-cells is known as 'immunotherapy' - a form of treatment that uses the patient's own immune system to combat their disease Credit: PA

But now, for the first time, researchers at Cardiff University have been able to explain why the experimental therapy caused these deaths, by demonstrating that the modified T-cells were actually capable of targeting healthy body tissue.

As a result, they have been able to use advanced technology to 're-engineer' the modified T-cells, making it much more difficult for them to target healthy body tissue, and thus paving the way for a safer and more effective generation of new cancer drugs.

But Professor Brian Baker, from the University of Notre Dame, says though this breakthrough is 'significant' there is still much to learn.

Modified T-cells are currently generating a huge amount of interest as a new breakthrough therapy to fight cancer. However, there is still much to learn about the potential side effects that these modified cells may have.

The striking new study by Dr Cole and colleagues represents a very significant step in demonstrating why unanticipated side effects can occur, and how they might be avoided in future work, improving both safety and efficacy in cancer immunotherapy.

– Professor Brian Baker, University of Notre Dame