Scientists from Stanford University School of Medicine have been able to use a specific type of stem cell to immunise mice against certain breast, lung and skin cancers.
Called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells they are a powerful tool in helping us to repair the body. Effectively they are a blank canvas, allowing us to create any type of cell which can then be used to repair damage caused by disease or trauma.
The scientists were able to take the iPS cells and then genetically make them appear identical to tumour cells. The body then reacts as though it is being attacked by actual cancer cells and is able to build up a strong defence.
Of course the key differentiator here is that the body is simply being tricked, while the iPS cells appear to be tumour cells they won’t reproduce or cause any harm to the body.
“This approach is particularly powerful because it allows us to expose the immune system to many different cancer-specific epitopes simultaneously,” said lead author Nigel Kooreman, MD, “Once activated, the immune system is on alert to target cancers as they develop throughout the body.”
The process of creating these cells is actually quite remarkable.
Scientists will take readily available cells like skin cells and then in a laboratory they’ll actually reverse the age of the cells back to their most basic form, otherwise known as a stem cell.
From there the team can then create a very specific type of tumour known as a teratoma which is made up of a wide variety of different cell types.
They then injected mice with both the tumour and an immune-boosting agent known as an adjuvant. Finally a breast cancer cell line was injected into the mice.
What they found was really interesting. While all the mice experience breast cancer tumour growth, 7 of the 10 mice saw their tumours shrink and two of the mice were actually able to completely reject the breast cancer cells that they were injected with.
Is this a cancer vaccine for humans?
Not yet. However due to the impressive results seen by the team at Stanford they would now like to trial a series of tests using human cancer and immune cells.
If successful the scientists envisage a future where patients could receive a vaccine made up of their own irradiated iPS cells as a means of preventing the development of cancer months or even years later.
Alternatively it could also be used as a form of post-surgery treatment where a patient would receive the iPS cells in addition to chemotherapy or immunotherapy.