An international group of researchers think they have found the “Achilles heel” of cancer, a way for the patient’s own body to attack and potentially defeat the disease.
The research, which appeared Friday in Science, breaks new ground in the fight against the disease, the scientists say.
“What we’ve found for the first time is that tumors essentially sow the seeds of their own destruction,” the study’s lead author, Charles Swanton, tells The Guardian.
The scientists hope to test treatments based on the findings within two years, according to the BBC. If they work, they will have succeeded where many others have failed. Researchers have tried for years to get the body’s own immune system to attack cancer—creating a so-called “cancer vaccine.” One of the biggest complications has been finding a way to keep a patient’s body from attacking healthy cells as well.
The new study’s breakthrough was identifying numerous proteins—known as antigens—that are unique to cancer cells, in theory allowing scientists to develop treatments giving the body’s immune system a specific target to attack.
“This is exciting. Now we can prioritize and target tumor antigens that are present in every cell—the Achilles heel of these highly complex cancers,” Swanton tells the BBC.
Treatments based on the findings have not been tried on patients yet, though Swanton said that their work opened up the potential for a future of “bespoke” cancer treatments specifically designed for each patient.
Scientists not involved with the study agreed that it was a step forward, but added that any new treatment based on the finding would likely be years away, and very, very expensive.
“The greatest use of this knowledge is in working out which patients are most likely to be treatable,” David Adams, a British geneticist, tells The Guardian. “This is right on the cutting edge.”