A new study from Johns Hopkins may hold the key to unlocking a revolutionary form of cancer treatment.
The research team discovered that cancer hides in cells, making it difficult for your immune system to track it down and slow its progress. They found that a set of genes can open up the cell, expose the cancer, and allow your immune system to get in and clean up the mess.
To date, immune therapy has had little success treating prevalent cancers like breast, ovarian, and colorectal. The immune system can’t penetrate cells in order to attack the cancer, allowing the cancer to further develop and spread to surrounding cells. However, the research team says they’ve discovered that certain genes are repressed through what are known as “epigenetic changes.” Epigenetic changes refer to modifications that alter the way genes function, while leaving the DNA sequence completely intact.
The team was able to reverse these epigenetic changes using a drug already approved by the FDA. The result was that cancer was essentially forced out of hiding, creating an easy target for immune treatments it would have previously evaded. Because of this development, it’s likely immune therapy will work as an effective treatment for breast, colorectal, and ovarian cancers.
Researchers treated 63 cancer strains (26 breast, 14 colorectal, and 23 ovarian) with AZA, an immunosuppressive drug that’s approved for myelodysplastic syndrome (myelodysplastic syndrome is a type of cancer where bone marrow does not make enough healthy blood cells and there are abnormal cells found in the marrow).
AZA removes the gateway to certain genes so necessary processes can take place.
They noticed the AZA worked on cancerous cells by opening up the gates around them and exposing them. The immune system pathways were suppressed in roughly half of the ovarian cases, 40% of the colorectal and 30% of the breast cases, meaning a certain individual’s genetics may allow them to be better candidates for immune treatment.
Because the results seemed to identify certain genes in some individuals that will respond to AZA treatment, there is still work to do. However, the individuals who are compatible with immune treatment appear to have the most to gain. Determining whether someone is fit for such treatment would likely be conducted through a simple blood test.
So far, AZA treatment has worked on cancer cells cultivated in a lab, so human trials are required for a better idea of its effectiveness. That being said, one of the lead researchers on the team recently began a small human trial using lung cancer victims. She reports early results are positive.
What makes this discovery so interesting is that it provides alternative therapy for cancers that are typically difficult to treat. Chemotherapy is often used to combat these forms of cancer, but the problem is that chemo only works for a limited time. For example, chemo is typically used following breast cancer treatment in order to lower the risk of the same cancer reappearing. It’s not a cure for breast cancer. Rather, it’s used as a way to suppress growth or send it into remission. This new development, using AZA, can hopefully cure the cancer so it is not a future concern.
Any news regarding a potential new cancer treatment is good news. This development is worth keeping an eye on because it might just change the game.
“Common Cancers Evade Detection by Silencing Parts of Immune System Cells,” Science Daily web site, March 4, 2014; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140304154523.htm, last accessed March 12, 2014.