by Dr. Gary Koski, PhD
The immune system’s most important job is to protect the body from infection. In order to accomplish this, it must first make distinctions between invading microbes and normal bodily cells. Then it must specifically attack and eliminate the intruders while scrupulously avoiding assaults on normal cells and tissues of the body. The reason that this vital bodily defense system is seldom a natural enemy to cancer is that malignant cells very closely resemble normal healthy ones, at least so far as the immune system is concerned. Because of this, the immune system perceives no threat from cancer and usually does not attack. Therefore, the trick to getting the immune system to violently oppose cancer may lie in tricking it into perceiving cancer as an infection that requires immediate action.
Dr. Czerniecki and his team have developed a new immunotherapy for breast cancer to do just that. It is centered on a type of white blood cell called a dendritic cell (DC). DCs are the primary cell of the immune system that makes the distinction between normal bodily cells and invading microbes early in an infection. To produce the therapy, cells that give rise to DCs are removed from the bloodstream of the cancer patient and are grown briefly in the laboratory. The cells are then cultured with synthetic versions of proteins found on many breast cancers while simultaneously exposing the DCs to certain natural biochemical signals of infection. This combination “tricks” the DCs into behaving as though the synthetic cancer proteins are coming from a dangerous bacterial infection. In response, the DCs decorate their own surfaces with the synthetic cancer proteins. The DC are then harvested and injected directly into breast tumors of the cancer patients.
Once back in the body and among the tumor cells, the DCs get to work. They begin by producing soluble factors that alter the environment of the tumor in such a way as to attract other immune system cells and facilitate their function once they arrive. Other DCs leave the tumor and migrate to lymph nodes. Within the lymph nodes, they display the synthetic cancer proteins collected to other immune system cells called T cells. In response, the T cells will expand into a small army and then leave the lymph nodes to go on a body-wide search-and-destroy mission against any target bearing the cancer proteins shown to them by the DCs. These T cells also orchestrate activities of many other immune system cells that have such names as B cells, Natural Killer (NK) cells and Natural Killer T cells (NKT). These cells are all guided back to the tumor by the soluble factors, produced by the injected DC’s remaining within the tumor. Now convinced that the tumor cells are actually a dangerous infection, all these components of the immune system will converge on the cancerous tumor and work together to eliminate it, just as it would a microbial infection. This new immunotherapy elicits the same kind of immune response the body naturally develops against infection and does so without any genetic modification to any of the cells, ensuring the highest level of safety to the patient with little to no toxicity.