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Cancer Immunotherapy Hopes

5 June 2017
Giulio Prisco

Cancer Cells

The natural world is full of compounds, engineered by evolution over billions of years, that medicine can harness to improve our health. A recent example is the discovery that a native Australian plant has powerful effects against the Zika virus. It seems likely that many yet undiscovered chemicals produced by plants and animals could help in the fight against infections, and even in the war on cancer.

Speaking of cancer, CNN has a comprehensive review of cancer immunotherapy, a therapeutic approach that harnesses the body's own immune system to target and attack cancer. Former US president Jimmy Carter, now 92, represents a success story of cancer immunotherapy. The CNN review tries to carefully separate promising research and clinical directions from hype.

In related cancer immunotherapy news reported by the LA Times, the FDA has granted accelerated approval to a treatment for patients whose cancers have a specific genetic feature (biomarker). This is the first time the agency has approved a cancer treatment based on a common biomarker rather than the location in the body where the tumor originated. The drug, known as pembrolizumab and marketed by Merck as Keytruda, can be prescribed for treatment of solid tumors in any organ, provided the tumors present the specific biomarker. Keytruda works by helping the body’s immune system fight the cancer cells.

See also the cancer immunotherapy news from the University of Pennsylvania, reported below.

Common antioxidant improves age-related skin problems. Scientists at the University of Maryland found evidence that a common, inexpensive and safe antioxidant called methylene blue could slow or reverse symptoms of aging in human skin. The antioxidant was tested in cultured human skin cells and simulated skin tissue - a three-dimensional model made of living skin cells, which includes all the major layers and structures of skin tissue. The study, published in Scientific Reports, shows that methylene blue outperformed other antioxidants and improved several age-related symptoms in skin cells.

Re-engineering pain drugs to make them more effective. Researchers at Monash University have developed a new drug delivery strategy able to block pain within the nerve cells of lab animals. The study, published in Science Translational Medicine, indicates that a protein known as NK1 receptor controls pain once it is inside a cell. If the NK-1 receptor is blocked once it enters the nerve cell, it is possible to suppress pain more effectively. According to the scientists, this proof-of-concept study shows that further studies in human patients could permit re-engineering current pain drugs and making them more effective.

A native Australian plant can kill the Zika virus. Biologists at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), in collaboration with Health Focus Products Australia (HFPA),  have discovered a group of naturally occurring compounds in an Australian native plant that effectively kill the Zika virus. First test results, announced at the QUT Biomedical Industry Group innovation seminar, indicate that the compounds halted the virus and stopped it replicating without damage to host mammalian cells.

Engineered vancomycin could eliminate the threat of antibiotic-resistant infections. Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have discovered a way to structurally modify vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic, to make it even more powerful. The study, published in PNAS, which builds on previous ways to modify vancomycin developed by the scientists, shows that the new modification gives vancomycin a 1,000-fold increase in activity. The antibiotic has been prescribed by doctors for 60 years, and bacteria are only now developing resistance to it, which indicates that engineered vancomycin could be used without fear of resistance emerging. According to the scientists, this advance could eliminate the threat of antibiotic-resistant infections for years to come.

Personalized cellular therapy shows promise for leukemia patients. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Penn's Abramson Cancer Center (ACC), supported by a grant from Novartis, have combined cancer drug ibrutinib with an experimental personalized cellular therapy known as CTL119, built with a patient’s own T cells and a gene transfer technique designed to teach the T cells to target and kill tumor cells. The researchers have shown that the combination can lead to complete remission in patients with high-risk chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). The full research results will be presented at the 2017 American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting.

Engineered organoids for research and drug discovery. Scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) have combined three-dimensional lab-grown brain-like structures, called cerebral organoids, with bioengineering. The study, published in Nature Biotechnology, shows how to combine the intrinsic self-organization of organoids and the reproducibility afforded by bioengineering. The researchers used small microfilaments to generate a floating scaffold that guides the organoids to assume realistic shapes, thus optimizing organoids for fundamental brain research and drug discovery.

Rewiring the brain to understand how it works. In an experiment that reminds of scary science fiction films, scientists at the University of Georgia have rewired the neural circuit of one species of sea slug and given it the connections of another species. The results, published in Current Biology, indicate that different neural wirings can underlie the same behaviors. Over the course of evolution, behaviors might be conserved, but the underlying neural circuitry could shift. The research has important implications beyond sea slugs and could lead to a better understanding of how neural circuitry works.

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