The U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) have provided funds of nearly $4 million to researchers at Houston Methodist Research Institute in the hope that they will be able to create immunotherapy to target triple-negative breast cancer, the most lethal form of breast cancer. Immunotherapy is a method of treatment that trains the immune system to distinguish between cancer cells and normal cells so that it can target and destroy those cancer cells, without doing any damage to healthy tissue.
Breast cancer is the second most lethal form of cancer for women. Currently, it kills about 40,000 women per year in the U.S. alone. However, this number is decreasing thanks to ongoing improvements in diagnosis and treatment. Despite this, about 1 in 8 American women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives. The survival rate is close to 100% if it is diagnosed early, but if breast cancer has already spread then the survival rate drops dramatically. Triple negative breast cancer is harder to treat because chemotherapy for breast cancers usually targets estrogen, progesterone and HER2 hormone receptors, which are not present in triple negative breast cancer.
The research team at Houston Methodist Research Institute, which is led by Rongfu Wang, Ph.D and Jenny Chang, M.D., identified NY-ESO-1, a protein which is only found in cancer cells or the testes. Therefore, by targeting this protein they are able to ensure that there are no adverse side effects in the women who undergo treatment as it can only target the cancer cells.
The scientists take T cells, which help the immune system fight cancer, attach them to NY-ESO-1 and inject them back into the patient to allow their immune system to fight cancer. The initial signs have been very positive, with a response rate of the treatment between 55% and 80%, meaning the treatment could be a very useful tool in fighting certain cancers in the future.