An important breakthrough in the world of cancer treatment may help make great strides in helping slow and stop the spread of many different types of tumors. While new drugs or treatments are often mentioned that promise to slow or treat specific types of cancer, this new treatment may be different. Initial studies show that this new class of drug may be able to help across the spectrum of different types of cancer.
The research that led to this breakthrough began a decade ago when it was discovered that leukemia cells produce a protein called CD47 at a much higher rate than healthy cells. CD47 is a marker that prevents the immune system from destroying normal cells as they circulate throughout the body. Cancers take advantage of this hiding mechanism by utilizing CD47 to confuse the immune system into ignoring them, allowing tumors to spread and grow.
Since then, researchers have focused on finding or creating a CD47-blocking antibody that would keep the cancer cells from producing this protein. And then, the immune system would be likely to “see” the cancer cells and attack them. In initial studies, results indicated that this antibody was able to block leukemia and lymphoma cells from producing the CD47 protein, allowing the immune system to fight back against these cancer cells that no longer had the protection to keep them hidden. Using this drug, researchers were able to create better outcomes in many cases of leukemia and lymphoma.
After realizing the capabilities of this CD47-blocking antibody, researchers expanded their studies to include other types of primary tumors outside the world of blood cancers. They made several frankly astonishing discoveries when expanding the study: the antibodies worked on every type of tumor they tested, and the amount of CD47 cancerous cells produce correlate with the survival odds for that type of cancer.
The first step was to determine whether blocking CD47 was beneficial. Researchers exposed different types of tumor cells to macrophages, a type of immune cell, and anti-CD47 molecules. When the researchers didn’t use the anti-CD47 drug, the macrophages were tricked into not seeing the cancerous cells. But when the anti-CD47 was present, the macrophages were aware of the cancerous cells and destroyed the cells of all tested tumor types.
The team of researchers then used tumors implanted into mice. When they treated the mice with anti-CD47, the tumors shrank and did not spread to the rest of the body. In one of the experiments, mice were given human bladder cancer tumors. After receiving the drug, only 1 out of 10 mice had lymph nodes with any signs of metastatic cancer. In addition, the tumors often shrank and allowed current treatments to be more effective. For example, colon cancer cells shrank on average to one-third of their original size. For breast cancer tumors, anti-CD47 eliminated all signs of the cancer cells, and the mice remained cancer-free more than 4 months after the treatment stopped.
Of note, blood cells also express CD47, which were also attacked by the immune cells. However when mice were given the antibody, the study found that after stopping the anti-CD47 treatment, the decrease in blood cells was short-lived and the production of new blood cells increased to replenish those lost during the treatment.
While more research needs to be done and further testing is required before any treatments can be recommended or even developed, this is one of the most promising cancer treatment studies in a long time. Clinical studies are being fast-tracked for this very promising treatment. The potential for this new approach in the treatment (and even cure) of cancer is remarkable and may allow people who had few treatment options an increased chance to live long and full lives without many of the debilitating side effects that can be experienced. As this research develops and evolves, it’s exciting to envision the future that is possible.
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