"We certainly think that this is a breakthrough," said Johanna Olweus, Director of the KG Jebsen Center for Cancer Immunotherapy at the University of Oslo. "I'm optimistic that this can be used on patients in not that many years."
In a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Wednesday, Olweus's team detail a new technique for identifying markers on various kinds of cancers to which the body's own immune system can be targeted by genetic modification of immune cells called T cells.
Olweus's research comes in a year when researchers at two US cancer centres used genetically engineered T-cells to cure more than 40 patients suffering from leukaemia.
"The reason that this is extremely promising is that it's now been shown that immunotherapy works and that you can cure cancers that had previously been regarded as incurable," Olweus said. "The sensational thing about the immunotherapy is that the T-cells can find the cancer cells wherever they are in the body without killing the surrounding cells."
However, the treatment pioneered at The University of Pennsylvania and at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York worked because CD19, a surface protein expressed on the immune cells affected by acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, was an easily identifiable target, which the T-cells could be modified to attack.
"One of the most important limitations for immunotherapy is that it's difficult to find good targets on the cancer cells," Olweus explained. "If you have a target which is also expressed in a a lot of normal cells, then you will get side effects."
The new technique demonstrated in her study makes it easier to find good targets on difficult-to-treat cancers.
Her researchers found 36 potential new targets for T cells in different kinds of cancers over the course of one study, opening the way for much wider use of immunotherapy techniques.
The research was performed in Olweus's group in collaboration with two other groups in the newly started KG Jebsen Center for Cancer Immunotherapy at the University of Oslo.
The article was published today here.