The Cancer Assassin: How Immunotherapy Is Fighting Back Against Cancer

B0007213 Lung cancer cells Credit: Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK. Wellcome Images Lung cancer cells. Scanning electron micrograph Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK, see

A revolutionary new cancer treatment that remembers the disease and prevents it ever returning is being developed by scientists. 

Researchers are engineering immune cells so that they not only boost the body’s own natural defences to fight tumours, but stand guard for a lifetime – acting effectively like a vaccine.

Scientists say it is like having a “living drug”, which is constantly vigilant to the return of cancer and quickly removes it from the body.

The treatment is called immunotherapy, and it uses the body’s natural immune system to destroy cancer cells. During the treatment doctors will remove the patient’s own immune cells — known as the t-cells — and they’ll reprogram them to attack cancer and replace them.

A new study, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, has proven for the first time that engineered “memory T-cells” can persist in the body for at least 14 years.

“Imagine when you are given a vaccine as a kid and you are protected against flu or whatever for all of your life. Why is that?” Professor Chiara Bonini said in a interview with the Daily Telegraph. “It’s because when a T-cell encounters the antigen and gets activated, it kills the pathogen but also persists as a memory cell.”

In a trial at a Milan hospital, ten patients who had bone marrow transplants were also given immune-boosting therapy which included the memory T-cells. They were found to be there 14 years later.

The Milan study proved for the first time scientists have shown that these cells can survive in the body well beyond the original cancer treatment.

Daniel Davis, professor of immunology at the University of Manchester, said it was an “important advance” in cancer treatment.

“The implication is that infusing genetically modified versions of these particular T-cells, the stem memory T-cells, could provide a long-lasting immune response against a person’s cancer,” he said.

“Imagine translating this to cancer immunotherapy, to have memory T-cells that remember the cancer and are ready for when it comes back.”

A new film from Cambridge University  captures the behaviour of cytotoxic T cells – the body’s ‘serial killers’ – as they hunt down and eliminate cancer cells before moving on to their next target.

According to BBC, successful studies and trials on immunotherapy could revolutionize cancer treatments.

Also published in the AAAS were the findings of a team of US scientists which showed that their T-cell immunotherapy treatment had seen an ‘unprecedented’ 94 percent success rate in patients with leukemia and over half of those with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma who had been given only months to live. The patients reported that their symptoms appeared to completely vanished.

US scientists said they had achieved “extraordinary” results in early clinical trials.

Gor more info on T-cells check out the short video below:


Photo credit: Wellcome Images from Flickr.

Video Credit (Top): Cambridge University from YouTube.

Video Credit (Bottom): VideosMolecular from YouTube.