Voted breakthrough of the year by the Washington-based journal Science, a potential revolution in cancer treatment that involves harnessing the body’s own immune defences to eliminate tumours has been perceived as the turning point in cancer research and described as a “paradigm shift” for related treatment.
2013 saw the rise of cancer immunotherapy, marking a revolutionary development due to the unusual form of therapy that has shown remarkably encouraging results in some of the first clinical trials of drug treatments. Journal science said, “Immunotherapy marks an entirely different way of treating cancer by targeting the immune system, opposed to the tumour itself. Oncologists, a grounded-in-reality bunch, say a corner has been turned and we won’t be going back.”
Instead of targeting the tumor itself, cancer immunotherapy harnesses the immune system to stop cancer. Previously, the only recorded treatments have been surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The discovery explored several approaches to cancer immunotherapy, one involving the manufacture of monoclonal antibodies such as a drug called ipilimubab which binds to T-cells, causing them to proliferate and eliminate cancers.
Global biopharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb, which manufactures ipilimubab, reported that out of nearly 2,000 patients with advanced melanoma, 22 per cent were alive after three years which was a significant improvement on previous treatments. Many companies are now working on ways of genetically modifying a patient’s own T-cells to help target tumour cells which have already been proven successful against leukemia.
In Britain, the Immunocore company based near Oxford has developed a drug molecule that can stick T-cells to certain types of cancer cells, ultimately leading to the elimination of these cells. Another immunotherapy technique, called T-cell therapy, takes a person’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell, and uses genetic engineering to change the cells’ genetic code to target cancer cells. Earlier this year in March, researchers reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine that in a study of five adults with acute leukemia three patients’ cancer went into remission after they underwent T-cell therapy.
The breakthrough of immunotherapy is considered by many specialists as the start of an important model to successfully treat cancer. Tim Appenzeller, chief news editor of Science said, “This year the immense promise of cancer immunotherapy had to take it. So far this strategy of harnessing the immune system to attack tumours works only for some cancers and a few patients, so it’s important to avoid overstating the immediate benefits, although many cancer specialists are convinced that they are seeing the birth of an important new paradigm for cancer treatment.”
Researchers are yet to understand why only some people are helped by the treatment although future research should help answer this question, as well as make the therapies more potent. The journal Science pointed to other key achievements in its annual top 10 breakthroughs issue, including:
Genetics. Discovered in bacteria, a gene editing technique named CRISPR, flourished on the operating table when researchers started using it to manipulate individual genes in the genomes of plant, animal, and human cells.
Alternative energy. A new kind of solar-cell material, perovskite cells, gained attention due to it’s cheap and easy production compared to silicon cells. Once refined they could work twice as better as the traditional cells.
Biology. Scientists used the structure of an antibody to design an immunogen, the main ingredient of vaccines, for a respiratory virus that sends millions of children younger than five to hospital each year.
Neuroscience. A new imaging technique helped to make making neurons and other types of cells more visible than ever before by rendering brain tissue transparent, . The Stanford-developed technology, known as CLARITY allows scientists to see a fully intact brain and its complex structures in a their three-dimensional view.
Anatomy. Researchers succeeded in growing mini-human-like “organoids” in including liver buds, kidneys, and brains which can be more useful the studies on animal equivalents.
Space. Scientists were able to confirm that cosmic rays originate from debris clouds left behind by exploding stars, called supernovae.
Stem cells. Stem cells were successfully derived from cloned human embryos through the secret ingredient of caffeine. The drug stabilized molecules in delicate human egg cells, allowing scientists to carefully extract the stem cells.
Sleep. Mice studies revealed that the brain ‘cleans’ itself much more efficiently after bedtime. Through sleep, the organ expands the channels between neurons, which allows more cerebrospinal fluid, a protective fluid that cushions the brain inside the skull, to flow through.
Microbiology. Research on the trillions of bacterial cells within the human body revealed the crucial roles tiny microbes play in keeping us healthy. Microorganisms were discovered as good for our body opposed to previous belief.
What do you think is the biggest medical breakthrough of 2013 ?