A way of fighting cancer
that turns the body's immune cells into targeted tumour killers was named the
breakthrough of the year by the US journal Science on Thursday.
Immunotherapy has only
worked for a small number of patients, and only in certain cancers, including
melanoma and leukaemia, but experts believe its promise is huge.
grounded-in-reality bunch, say a corner has been turned and we won't be going
back," said the journal Science.
Research began in the late
1980s when French scientists discovered a receptor on T-cells, called CTLA-4, a
molecule that turned out to play an important role in regulating the immune
A decade later, a Texas
researcher showed that blocking CTLA-4 in mice "could unleash T-cells
against tumour cells in the animals, shrinking them dramatically," the
More advances have
followed. In the 1990s, a biologist in Japan discovered a molecule expressed in
dying T-cells, called PD-1, which has also shown promise in the fight against
A new drug
As many as five big
pharmaceutical companies are now on board with immunotherapy. A new drug made
by Bristol Myers-Squibb was approved in 2011. Called ipilimumab, it costs $120 000
per treatment course.
It's costly, and by no
means a sure bet. Research in 2012 on a group of 300 people showed the drug
shrunk tumours by half or more in 31% of patients with melanoma, 29% with
kidney cancer and 17% with lung cancer.
Research out this year on 1
800 people with melanoma who received ipilimumab, 22% were alive three years
A related treatment called
chimeric antigen receptor therapy, which involves modifying a patient's own
T-cells to make them attack tumours, has succeeded in putting 45 of 75 people
with leukaemia in total remission, researchers said this year.
One of those success
stories is Emily Whitehead, now age eight. Last year she became the first paediatric
patient to receive the experimental therapy for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).
"She is doing great.
She is almost 20 months cancer free now. Her health has just been wonderful.
She is completely back to normal, back to school full time," her mother,
Kari, told AFP.
Emily was at the brink of
death, and after two relapses doctors admitted they had no options. Their hope
was suddenly revived when her family learned about the experimental T-cell
therapy and agreed to try it.
"There just wasn't
anything left for her," her mother said. "This treatment has just
been amazing for Emily and for all the other families who were told the same
Top 10 breakthroughs
The journal Science and its
publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, pointed to
other key achievements in its annual top 10 breakthroughs issue.
- A new generation of
cheaper solar cells called Perovskite cells, which are gaining efficiency and
are cheaper than traditional silicon cells.
- Progress in growing lab
versions of miniature human organs such as brains, kidneys and liver buds to
better understand human disease.
- Stem cells derived from
cloned human embryos.
- A better understanding of
how sleep allows the brain to clean itself by expanding channels between
neurons and allowing more cerebrospinal fluid to flow through.
- The importance of microbes
in the understanding of the body's overall health.
- A new way of designing a
vaccine using the structure of an antibody, cheered for its potential against a
common childhood illness, respiratory syncytial virus.
- The origin of cosmic rays
was figured out after 100 years. It turns out they come from debris clouds left
by supernovae, or exploding stars.
Top scientists of 2013
The journal Nature also
released its list of the top scientists of 2013.
They included Russian
meteorite hunter Viktor Grokhovsky, whose 30 years of expertise helped advance
the study of a massive Chelyabinsk meteor that took astronomers by surprise
when it crashed to Earth in February.
Another was Chinese
virologist Hualan Chen, who helped quell an outbreak of H7N9 bird flu in humans
by rushing to collect samples, leading to the closure of risky poultry markets.
She also published controversial research on engineered H1N1 and H5N1 flu
hybrids that could pass between mammals.