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Scope 48 - How it all happens

30 July 2012

Immunotherapy is emerging as one of the most promising alternative approaches to cancer treatment, with the potential to eradicate cancer with very few side-effects.

The immune system has all the properties that are required to complement existing treatments and eradicate cancer. White blood cells called T cells can discriminate between normal and cancer cells, they have powerful cancer killing capability and can move around the body to eliminate tumours that have spread to other tissues.

For the immune system to elicit an effective anti-tumour immune response, two things need to happen. The cancer-fighting T cells first need to ‘see’ the tumour. They also need to be supported so they can mount a big enough immune response to destroy it. This is where the cancer vaccine (or immunotherapy) comes into play.

The cancer vaccine is made from dendritic cells, which are isolated from the patient’s blood, and a biopsy or protein fragments of the patient’s tumour. The two are mixed together in the laboratory, where over a few days the dendritic cells will process up the tumour into a form (antigens) that can be recognised by the cancer fighting T cells.

The vaccine thus created is then injected back into the patient and the dendritic cells traffic to the sites in the body where T cells reside to present the tumour-specific antigens directly to them. Adjuvants, such as alpha-galactosylceramide are sometimes used to help the dendritic cells complete their task and ensure maximum T cell activation.


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