In an online study published in the British Journal of Cancer this week, researchers have discovered that the germ Baculillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG), very often used to vaccinate against tuberculosis (TB), can activate the body’s own immune system to fight cancer through a prospective new mechanism.
According to investigators, Dr Wai Liu and Professor Angus Dalgleish from St George’s, University of London, the new information is suggestive of the fact that vaccines might heighten the anti-cancer activity of presently available therapies. They further caution that the investigation is in its primary stages, and necessitates substantial amount of research before transforming lab science to innovations that benefit patients.
Through lab-based experiments, researchers investigated human tumor cells outside of the body. They demonstrated that BCG could be used to stimulate WBCs to produce certain chemicals called cytokines thus increasing the chances of the body’s immune system to identify tumor cells.
Lead investigator Dr Wai Lui explains: “Cancerous cells are known to camouflage themselves as healthy cells. This means our blood cells responsible for immunity aren’t able to recognize the cancerous cells as being a problem and so the disease is able to continue to spread. This study found that a small quantity of BCG – similar to the amount that is administered in a TB inoculation – can help the immune system recognize the cancer cells as ‘foreign’. The immune system can then attack these cells in the same way it would any other infection.”
BCG injection triggers the production of cytokines. This is followed by a cascade of events that arrests the tumor to limit camouflage enabling the immune system to see it, after which the WBCs responsible for destroying “foreign” cells launch an attack.
Human cancer cells from breast, lung, pancreatic, colon, and skin were treated with the BCG injection. The findings of the study revealed that breast, lung, and colon cancer cells were increasingly visible to the immune cells. In laboratory-based research, white cells were successful in targeting and attacking less camouflaged cancer cells.
Research hovering around the stimulation of the immune system against cancer with drugs is increasingly gaining momentum. Researchers believe that these discoveries pave the way for future treatment methods providing cancer patients with an opportunity to combine these treatments along with existing drug treatments.
Dr Liu says, “Using the body’s own immune system is a relatively new way of thinking in the development of cancer treatments, and scientists are still building up a knowledge base about it. If successful, this method of treatment could be used in combination with existing cancer drugs. It could potentially see patients taking less medication, having fewer and less severe side effects and recovering quicker.”
He concludes, “This research is at an early stage of investigation, and so far has analyzed the reaction of human blood outside of the body, so more work is needed before these findings can be used in practice. The next stage will be to develop a compound suitable for clinical trials.”