The discovery of a new bio-inspired medication that enhances the immune system’s ability to fight cancer is a significant breakthrough in the field of cancer research. This medication has shown promise in inhibiting tumor growth and improving the effectiveness of immunotherapy in mouse models of various cancers, including melanoma, bladder cancer, leukemia, and colon cancer.
The key factor involved in this breakthrough is the DNA segment known as 9p21, which is frequently deleted in tumors and is found in a significant percentage of various cancer types. This deletion has been associated with worse prognoses for patients and increased resistance to immunotherapy treatments.
The 9p21 deletion appears to help cancer cells evade detection by the immune system by causing them to produce a toxic compound called MTA, which impairs the normal functioning of immune cells and hinders the effectiveness of immunotherapies. The new medication aims to counteract these effects and restore the immune system’s ability to combat cancer.
“In animal models, our drug lowers MTA back down to normal, and the immune system comes back on,” stated Everett Stone, a research associate professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences and associate professor of oncology at Dell Medical School, who led the work. “We see a lot more T cells around the tumor, and they’re in attack mode. T cells are an important immune cell type, like a SWAT team that can recognize tumor cells and pump them full of enzymes that chew up the tumor from the inside out.”
The drug candidate is designed to address the loss of key genes in cancer cells caused by the 9p21 deletion. These lost genes include those responsible for producing cell cycle regulators, which normally control the growth and division of healthy cells. When these genes are lost, cancer cells can grow uncontrollably, leading to tumor formation. Additionally, a housekeeping gene that produces an enzyme responsible for breaking down the toxin MTA is also deleted. The absence of this enzyme allows cancer cells to deactivate the immune system, giving them a new advantage in evading the body’s defenses.
To create the drug candidate, researchers utilized an enzyme naturally produced by the body to break down MTA and combined it with flexible polymers, presumably to enhance its stability and effectiveness as a therapeutic agent.
“Cancer gets a two-for-one when it loses both of these genes,” Stone stated. “It loses the brakes that normally keep it from growing in an uncontrolled manner. And then at the same time, it disarms the body’s police force. So, it becomes a much more aggressive and malignant kind of cancer.”
This promising development could potentially lead to more effective cancer treatments, particularly when used in combination with existing immunotherapies. However, it’s important to note that this research appears to be at the preclinical stage, and further studies and clinical trials will be needed to assess the safety and efficacy of this new medication in human patients.
“It’s already a really good enzyme, but we needed to optimize it to last longer in the body,” Stone stated. “If we injected just the natural enzyme, it would be eliminated within a few hours. In mice, our modified version stays in circulation for days; in humans it will last even longer.”
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