Can doctors teach the human body to cure lymphoma?

Thousands of people have been dedicated to the human fight against cancers which affect millions each year – such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma – for decades, so what if the cure to cancer has been part of every human anatomy all along?

For years and years, the three main pillars of cancer treatment have been surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, but these are often aggressive and crude attacks on the body, often also harming healthy tissue and leaving some cancer cells behind. Scientists have been developing treatment in recent years that harnesses the body’s own immune system into fighting the cancerous cells just as it would a cold or other infection.

“Before now, doctors and physicians in the field have always been extremely hesitant to use the ‘cure’ word for cancer,” said Dr Axel Hoos, the head of the immune-oncology discovery performance unit at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. “But because of the incredible advanced in immunotherapy that is no longer true. Individual physicians are actually starting to use the word ‘cure’ for some patients with diseases which were almost universally fatal just five years ago.”

Dr David Maloney, one of the head researchers behind the study, has been working with targeted cancer therapies since the early 1980s. As a student, he was part of a team that developed antibodies used for specifically targeting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma whilst avoiding harm to the surrounding healthy cells. Today, he infuses non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients with their own T-cells, which have been re-engineered to produce an antigen receptor which once triggered, can eliminate cancer.

It sounds simple, and the infusion of genetic immunotherapy only lasts about thirty minutes, even though the process of the genes encouraging the immune system to start fighting the now un-masked cancer cells takes several weeks. The T-cells multiply, meaning that unlike other treatments, which dissolve, disintegrate and disappear over time, this is a ‘living treatment’.

“We are moving away from a bottle-off-a-shelf type model, one-size-fits-all approach,” Maloney has explained, “to a way of fighting cancer where we are essentially custom-making treatments for patients, training a person’s immune system to go after a target and remember what that target looked like in the future.”

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