The team from the University of Calgary created a ‘cocktail’ of treatments that give the body’s immune system a much-needed boost.
Doug Mahoney’s lab at the university made the discovery after they tried a different approach to using immunotherapy.
“Our results suggest that we’ve been looking at these cancer drugs the wrong way ― as tumour-targeting drugs ― instead of what we now feel is their most important biological role: as immune stimulating therapy.” he explained.
What they found was that the body’s immune system can be effective but only if it is given a broad boost.
Tumour cells have the ability to actually reprogram some immune cells, turning on other immune cells and blocking them.
So while immunotherapy has huge potential, by targeting just some immune cells we’re still leaving others vulnerable to to the cancerous cells.
Instead, Mahoney’s research involved creating a broader collection of treatments that were then combined, the results of which were very promising.
“The combination of the drugs allowed the immune cells to do what they’re supposed to. We were able to cure cancer in 20 to 60 per cent of our animal models,” adds Mahoney. “It’s a very promising result against two very deadly forms of cancer: an aggressive breast cancer and a rare pediatric muscle cancer.”
To achieve these results the researchers combined two therapies, each targeting a different part of the immune system.
The first is an injection of a man-made virus. That injection puts the “gas on” the immune system followed by a second injection which contains a drug being developed as a chemotherapy. That drug stops then tumour from reprogramming immune cells.
Finally when the team added a third complimentary immunotherapy they saw the cure rate reach as high as 80-100%.
“These results change a lot,” says Mahoney. “What’s interesting is that neither drug was developed as an immunotherapy. For nearly two decades they have been studied for their ability to directly kill cancer cells.
In viewing these drugs through the lens of immunotherapy, it will impact the way we study them and try to figure out how to make them work better. From a clinical perspective, it changes the way we will try to translate these drugs,”
Mahoney believes patients will start reaping the benefits of this research in around five years and that human trials are already set to begin.