Cancer is the “emperor of all maladies,” according to British cancer researcher Charles Swanton. But new research may have pinpointed the emperor’s Achilles heel.
Scientists in the UK have come across something they are calling a breakthrough — a “flag” present in all tumors that can be used to target and kill cancer, the Telegraph reported. These researchers are so encouraged by their discovery that they’re hailing it as a possible cure.
That’s because this rare “flag” they’ve discovered can take down any cancer, even the most deadly cancers, and save patients in whom cancer has vigorously spread. In other words, the potential treatment based on this research could be cancer’s Achilles heel.
The find and the treatment that could result negates cancer’s most difficult characteristic, Swanton, who is with University College London’s Cancer Institute, explained to the Independent.
“It’s just a massive challenge, because this disease is unlike all other diseases that we see in medicine. We’re dealing with an entity that’s constantly evolving, constantly adapting, and constantly changing its genome.”
Right now, this constant evolution makes it difficult for cancer patients to be treated effectively. The cancer evolves too rapidly and escapes the effects of the drugs, and the tumors rapidly growing inside a patient like a moving target.
The doctors involved in the Achilles heel breakthrough used quite a few metaphors to explain their discovery. Using snowflakes and trees to represent cancer, Swanton explained the evasive nature of disease and the “flag” proteins that are found on the surface of a tumor cell and act as targets for the immune system
A tumor’s evolutionary tree is like a snowflake, unique for each patient. These tumors develop new branches with genetic mutations, and these mutations resist treatment. But the “trunk” of this tree contains these flag proteins, and each branch that grows out of this trunk contains the same flag.
Another cancer researcher, Dr. Sergio Quezada, explained the disease’s Achilles heel with a crime metaphor.
“The body’s immune system acts as the police trying to tackle cancer, the criminals.Genetically diverse tumours are like a gang of hoodlums involved in different crimes — from robbery to smuggling. And the immune system struggles to keep on top of the cancer — just as it’s difficult for police when there’s so much going on. Our research shows that instead of aimlessly chasing crimes in different neighbourhoods, we can give the police the information they need to get to the kingpin at the root of all organised crime – or the weak spot in a patient’s tumour – to wipe out the problem for good.”
The Achilles heel treatment could take a few forms. The immune system is already primed to fight against this “flag.” However, their numbers are too small to do much harm to the cancer.
The Achilles heel comes in when doctors “fish out” the immune cells, multiply them by the billions, then return them to the patient’s body, where they wipe out the cancer — even if it has spread. Another option is to create a vaccine that will boost the patient’s ability to defend against the invasive disease.
These cancer researchers hope to test their Achilles heel treatment on patients in a couple of years. Since every patient has a different style of disease, this would revolutionize care by tailoring the therapy to each person.
Swanton is cautiously optimistic and hopes that the research will result in improvements to survival. If the Achilles heel doesn’t work, “I’ll probably hang my hat up and do something else.”
Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, Peter Johnson, didn’t shy away from lauding the Achilles heel discovery as revolutionary.
“I think we will look back at this in five-years’ time and think this was the moment of understanding cancer better.”
[Image via Sarayut Hyongsit/Shutterstock]