Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that affects the pancreas, an important digestive organ located behind the stomach. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is often referred to as a “silent killer” because it often goes undetected until it has already advanced and spread to other parts of the body. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice, abdominal pain, weight loss, and blood clots.
However, researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) have developed a new T cell-based immunotherapy that offers hope for those affected by this cancer. This new therapy selectively targets cancer cells, producing a powerful anti-cancer cytokine specifically when it encounters tumors.
The researchers discovered that the therapy effectively eliminates melanoma and pancreatic cancer in mice, with minimal side effects. This represents a promising new approach for treating these and other difficult-to-treat cancers.
The cells deliver IL-2, a naturally-occurring inflammatory molecule produced by the immune system that has powerful anti-cancer effects. IL-2 supercharges T cells, immune cells that can eliminate cancer cells and fight infection. The anti-cancer effects of IL-2 have been known for a long time, but systemic administration of IL-2 has been limited due to the severe side effects it can cause.
In the recent study, published in the journal Science, the researchers were able to keep the cytokine contained within the cancer by programming the tumor-infiltrating T cells to make their own IL-2 when they recognized a cancer cell.
According to Wendell Lim, Ph.D., the Byers Distinguished Professor in cellular and molecular biology, director of the UCSF Cell Design Institute, and senior author on the study, “We’ve taken advantage of the ability of these cells to be local delivery agents and to crank out their T-cell amplifiers only when they recognize they’re in the right place. I think this is a model for how we can use cell therapies to deliver many types of potent but toxic therapeutic agents in a much more targeted manner.”
Cellular therapies have been highly effective against many blood cancers, where the cells are easily accessible because they are floating freely. However, solid tumors have multiple defensive walls that prevent therapeutic T cells from entering. And even if the cells do get into the tumor, they often tire out before they’re able to eliminate all of the cancerous cells.
The new T cell-based immunotherapy developed by the researchers at UCSF offers a new way to fight solid tumors, like pancreatic cancer, with minimal side effects. The successful results in mice are a hopeful sign for future treatments and the possibility of a cure for pancreatic cancer.