Health & Wellness

Breakthrough Targets Cancer Tumours

A recent advance in genetic engineering could lead to an alternative to chemotherapy and radiation

By Caitlin Finlay


A team of US researchers has succeeded in modifying human cells to create tumour-hunting cancer killers. Their breakthrough offers the possibility of using a patient’s own immune system—instead of radiation or chemotherapy—to treat cancer.

Immunotherapy isn’t new—it’s been used with some success to fight cancers of the blood and cancers involving blood-producing organs. Immune cells called cytotoxic T cells, a type of white blood cell, seek out and destroy the cancerous cells. But the T cells are often unable to hunt down and kill cancerous cells in solid tumours; the fibrous mass and physical features of solid tumours slow down the cells’ movement and prevent them from fighting the cancer.

Engineering and medical researchers from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities set out to explore using gene-editing technology to engineer cytotoxic T cells that could overcome the barriers associated with solid tumours. The new research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

“The tumour is sort of like an obstacle course, and the T cell has to run the gauntlet to reach the cancer cells,” Paolo Provenzano, the senior author and a biomedical engineering associate professor at the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, said in a press release. “T cells get into tumours, but they just can’t move around well, and they can’t go where they need to go before they run out of gas and are exhausted.”

The engineered T cells would be better candidates for accessing, identifying, and destroying the cancer cells. According to Provenzano, “Every obstacle course within a tumour is slightly different, but there are some similarities. After engineering these immune cells, we found that they moved through the tumour almost twice as fast no matter what obstacles were in their way.”

The initial research involves mice, with the hope of advancing to human clinical trials in the future. The preliminary cancer studied was pancreatic cancer, but the T cell-engineering techniques could be applied to many types of cancers and someday improve cancer therapies for millions of people.

Photo: iStock/Scar1984.