A 3D illustration of a cancer cell (Credit: Shutterstock)
Scientists believe they could double the survival of people with advanced cancer within a decade.
World-leading experts from the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust said cutting-edge research will mean more people get cured while others live far longer.
Cancer scientists are increasingly gaining knowledge about what they describe as the ‘cancer ecosystem’.
This is the complex system which allows cancer cells to thrive and is made up of cancer cells, the immune system and those molecules, cells and structures that surround tumours and help them grow.
Experts from the ICR and Royal Marsden believe by using several methods of attack they can make great strides in areas such as destroying cancer cells, boosting the body’s ability to fight cancer itself and cutting off the ways healthy cells are tricked into helping cancer survive.
In one development, they hope to break the ability of cancer cells to instruct other cells in the body to come and support tumours.
For example, cancer cells currently send signals to areas such as the bone marrow to tell ‘slave cells’ to make a ‘nest’ in other parts of the body for cancer cells to set up home.
Interrupting these systems would help stop cancer spreading.
Further areas of development include combining existing treatments for better effect and using immunotherapy to help the body’s own immune system fight cancer.
Kevin Harrington, professor of biological cancer therapeutics at the ICR and consultant at the Royal Marsden, told a briefing: ‘We recognise the fact that a lump of cancer in a patient is far more than simply a ball of cancer cells.
‘It is a complex ecosystem and there are elements within that ecosystem that lend themselves to more advanced forms of targeting that will present for us a huge number of opportunities to cure more patients and to do so with fewer side-effects.’
He said experts were already learning how they might use drugs that do not kill cancer directly, but which ‘instead talk to the immune system, increasing the function of those cells that are capable of attacking cancer cells and blunting or downregulating the functions of cells which naturally tend to protect the cancer cells’.
He said this shifts ‘the balance within the ecosystem of the cancer towards an environment that is more conducive to the anti-cancer effects of our standard therapies and of new therapies that we will develop’.
One avenue of research is to use genetically modified viruses to ‘target cancer cells and also to talk to the microenvironment, the ecosystem in which cancer finds itself, in order to drive a signal to reject the cancer and to kill those cancer cells,’ Prof Harrington said.
Researchers will also expand studies looking at the microscopic fragments of cancer shed into the bloodstream with the aim of catching the disease in its earliest stages and to help inform treatment.
Cancer scientists now understand more about the ‘ecosystem’ …read more