- Researchers used tiny amounts of a metal which is known to be toxic to cells
- They injected it into tumours and boosted the immune system for a double effect
- When tumour cells were injected into the body again the body fought them off
Scientists have managed to cure cancer – and stop it returning – in mice using tiny metallic particles made of copper.
In an experiment, a group of lab mice who had been given cancer were injected with specially created copper oxide particles.
Copper oxide is derived from copper and oxygen, and the researchers made it into nanoparticles – hundreds of times thinner than human hair.
They injected this into tumours at the same time as giving the mice immunotherapy, a powerful treatment already used by doctors.
The cancers disappeared and, when cancerous cells were injected into the animals’ bodies again, the immune system destroyed them straight away.
Human trials are the next step for the scientists, who hope the treatment could replace gruelling chemotherapy for as many as 60 per cent of cancers.
Although metal particles are known to be toxic to living cells the scientists said they were able to harness tiny amounts of them to target specifically cancerous tumours and avoid healthy tissue (stock illustration of cancer cells)
‘If we would ingest metal oxides in large quantities, they can be dangerous,’ said Professor Stefaan Soenen and Dr Bella Manshian, from KU Leuven university in Germany, who worked together on the study.
‘But at a nanoscale and at controlled, safe, concentrations, they can actually be beneficial.’
Professor Soenen added: ‘As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that metal oxides are used to efficiently fight cancer cells with long-lasting immune effects in live models.
‘As a next step, we want to create other metal nanoparticles, and identify which particles affect which types of cancer.’
The mice in the study were given lung and bowel cancers, and the scientists suggested copper oxide could work for breast and ovarian forms of the disease, among others.
Metals are known to be poisonous to living cells and cause physical damage to them as well as disrupting DNA and stopping them reproducing normally.
This is one of the reasons why air pollution is so harmful, and also why exposure to lead, for example, can cause serious illnesses.
By harnessing tiny amounts of this danger and targeting it directly at cancer tumours, researchers were able to destroy specific growths.
And they combined the treatment with immunotherapy, which is a medical way of unleashing the body’s own immune system and white blood cells’ ability to destroy a tumour.
The body is capable of breaking down cancers by itself but may be held back to stop itself overreacting and damaging healthy tissue.
Immunotherapy is becoming increasingly common because it means patients can be treated without chemotherapy, which often has crippling side effects.
People taking chemo may lose their hair, become extremely weak and frail, lose weight, vomit, and may be so sickened they cannot tolerate it at all, allowing the cancer to grow.
Professor Soenen added: ‘Nanomedicine is on the rise in the US and Asia, but Europe is lagging behind.
‘It’s a challenge to advance in this field, because doctors and engineers often speak a different language.
‘We need more interdisciplinary collaboration, so that we can understand each other better and build upon each other’s knowledge.’
The KU Leuven researchers worked with others from the University of Bremen, the Leibniz Institute of Materials Engineering and the University of Ioannina, in Greece.
Their paper was published in the prestigious German chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.
WHAT IS IMMUNOTHERAPY?
It works by harnessing the immune system recognise and attack cancer cells. It is normally given via an IV drip.
Some types of immunotherapy are also called targeted treatments or biological therapies.
One might have immunotherapy on its own or with other cancer treatments.
The immune system works to protect the body against infection, illness and disease. It can also protect from the development of cancer.
The immune system includes the lymph glands, spleen and white blood cells.
Normally, it can spot and destroy faulty cells in the body, stopping cancer developing. But a cancer might develop when:
- the immune system recognises cancer cells but it is not strong enough to kill the cancer cells
- the cancer cells produce signals that stop the immune system from attacking it
- the cancer cells hide or escape from the immune system
Types of immunotherapy
Cancer treatments do not always fit easily into a certain type of treatment.
This is because some drugs or treatments work in more than one way and belong to more than one group.
For example, a type of immunotherapy called checkpoint inhibitors are also described as a monoclonal antibody or targeted treatment.
CAR T-cell therapy
This treatment changes the genes in a person’s white blood cells (T cells) to help them recognise and kill cancer cells.
Changing the T cell in this way is called genetically engineering the T cell.
It is available as a possible treatment for some children with leukaemia and some adults with lymphoma.
People with other types of cancer might have it as part of a clinical trial.
Monoclonal antibodies (MABs)
MABs recognise and attach to specific proteins on the surface of cancer cells.
Antibodies are found naturally in our blood and help us to fight infection. MAB therapies mimic natural antibodies, but are made in a laboratory.
Monoclonal means all one type. So each MAB therapy is a lot of copies of one type of antibody.
MABs work as an immunotherapy in different ways. They might do one of the following:
- trigger the immune system
- help the immune system to attack cancer
MABs trigger the immune system by attaching themselves to proteins on cancer cells.
This makes it easier for the cells of the immune system to find and attack the cancer cells.
This process is called antibody dependent cell mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC).
Checkpoint inhibitors are MABs that work by helping the immune system attack cancer cells.
Cancer can sometimes push a stop button on the immune cells, so the immune system won’t attack them.
Checkpoint inhibitors block cancers from pushing the stop button.
Cytokines are a group of proteins in the body that play an important part in boosting the immune system.
Interferon and interleukin are types of cytokines found in the body. Scientists have developed man made versions of these to treat some types of cancer.