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Scientists Discover Cancer’s ‘Achilles Heel’

Killer T cells surround a cancer cell. (NIH)

Scientists have found what they’re calling the “Achilles heel” of cancer, according to a new study.

Writing in Science, researchers from University College London say they have gained a better understanding about the genetic complexity of cancerous tumors, which could lead to new and powerful immunotherapy drugs.

The researchers say that as a tumor grows, “its genetic faults can be flagged on the cancer cell surface” and that some of the flags, called antigens, “represent the very earliest mutations of the disease and are displayed on all cells in the tumor, rather than a subset of tumor cells.” Those common mutations are the key to a new approach to therapy.

The researchers describe cancer’s mutations like a tree’s branches, with the earliest mutations “found in all cells, forming the trunk of the disease.” Later mutations are not seen in all the cancer’s cells, researchers said. Those changes allow the cancer to develop immunity to drugs, and avoid attacks by the T-cells of the body's immune system.

“The body’s immune system acts as the police trying to tackle cancer, the criminals. Genetically diverse tumors are like a gang of hoodlums involved in different crimes - from robbery to smuggling,” said Sergio Quezada, co-author of the study, Cancer Research UK scientist and head of the Immune Regulation and Cancer Immunotherapy lab at UCL Cancer Institute. “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 neighborhoods, we can give the police the information they need to get to the kingpin at the root of all organized crime – or the weak spot in a patient’s tumor – to wipe out the problem for good.”

The researchers said that because they can now identify and target the tumor antigens that are in every cancer cell, highly personalized immunotherapies could be developed to attack the cancer.

“For many years we have studied how the immune response to cancer is regulated without a clear understanding of what it is that immune cells recognize on cancerous cells. Based on these new findings, we will be able to tell the immune system how to specifically recognize and attack tumors,” said Quezada.