The cure for cancer might have been hiding within the human immune system all this time.
A team of scientists from Cardiff University have accidentally discovered a new type of immune cell that appears to be a broad-spectrum remedy for cancer, reports the BBC.
The researchers were toying around with a special type of genetic screening using CRISPR-Cas9, a technology derived from the genomes of bacteria that is capable of flagging and editing genes within organisms. They found a special type of human immune cell, or T-cell, that's capable of targeting cancerous tissue and killing it while leaving normal tissue untouched.
"There's a chance here to treat every patient," researcher Andrew Sewell told the BBC. "Previously nobody believed this could be possible. It raises the prospect of a 'one-size-fits-all' cancer treatment, a single type of T-cell that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population."
The method of using our own immune system to treat cancer isn't a new idea, but usually these types of therapies are only capable of targeting specific types of cancer. But this new T-cell works like nothing ever seen before. Early analysis indicates that it can target virtually any type of cancer, including lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer, to name just a few.
If scientists can properly harness this T-cell, it could be a finding on par with the discovery of antibiotics.
Special T-cells track down MR1
Here's what we know: the immune cell has a special receptor that interacts with a molecule known as MR1, which can be found on the surface of every cell in the human body. Scientists suspect that MR1 acts as an indicator of what is going on within a cell's metabolism, and because cancerous cells are characterized by their distorted metabolisms, it allows these T-cells to flag them.
This is all just speculation at this point; researchers don't know exactly how these T-cells are singling out the cancer while leaving normal cells untouched. But the immune response is real, which is the important thing.
"We are the first to describe a T-cell that finds MR1 in cancer cells — that hasn't been done before, this is the first of its kind," said research fellow Garry Dolton to the BBC.
Scientists are already designing a way of making use of these miraculous immune cells. The plan is to extract normal T-cells from a person's blood, then genetically modify them to utilize this cancer-finding receptor. These upgraded cells would then be grown in vast quantities in the lab and reinserted into a patient's blood stream.
Of course, more testing will need to be done before human trials can proceed, but researchers are being cautiously optimistic.
"There is no question that it's a very exciting discovery, both for advancing our basic knowledge about the immune system and for the possibility of future new medicines," said Daniel Davis, a professor of immunology at the University of Manchester.
The discovery was published in the journal Nature Immunology.