Welsh Government
Senior Research Leader discovers possibility of “universal” cancer therapy

Senior Research Leader discovers possibility of “universal” cancer therapy

22 January 2020

Research - part funded by Health and Care Research Wales - has discovered a new type of killer T-cell that offers hope of a “one-size-fits-all” cancer therapy.

T-cell therapies for cancer - where immune cells are removed, modified and returned to the patient’s blood to seek and destroy cancer cells - are the latest model in cancer treatments.

The most widely-used therapy, known as CAR-T, is personalised to each patient but targets only a few types of cancers and has not been successful for solid tumours, which make up the vast majority of cancers.

Cardiff University researchers have now discovered T-cells equipped with a new type of T-cell receptor (TCR) which recognises and kills most human cancer types, while ignoring healthy cells.

This TCR recognises a molecule (MR1) present on the surface of a wide range of cancer cells as well as in many of the body’s normal cells but, remarkably, is able to distinguish between healthy cells and cancerous ones, killing only the cancerous cells. 

Professor Andrew Sewell, Health and Care Research Wales Senior Research Leader and lead author on the study, said it was “highly unusual” to find a TCR with such broad cancer specificity and this raised the prospect of “universal” cancer therapy.

“We hope this new TCR may provide us with a different route to target and destroy a wide range of cancers in all individuals,” he said.

“Current TCR-based therapies can only be used in a minority of patients with a minority of cancers. 

“Cancer-targeting via MR1-restricted T-cells is an exciting new frontier - it raises the prospect of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ cancer treatment; a single type of T-cell that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population.

“Previously nobody believed this could be possible.”

T-cells equipped with the new TCR were shown, in the lab, to kill lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer cells, while ignoring healthy cells.

Further safety testing is taking place but the researchers hope to trial this new approach in patients towards the end of the year.

Professor Kieran Walshe, Director of Health and Care Research Wales, said:

“We fund research that aims to make a real difference to people’s lives. This study is a significant development in the fight against cancer and it has the potential to transform the treatment of thousands of patients.”

Professor Sewell said a vital aspect of the ongoing safety testing was to further ensure killer T-cells modified with the new TCR recognise cancer cells only. 

“There are plenty of hurdles to overcome however if this testing is successful, then I would hope this new treatment could be in use in patients in a few years’ time,” he said.

Further information about how the new type of T-cell receptor (TCR) works can be found on the Cardiff University website.

Read the full study which has been published in the Nature Immunology journal.