Revolution in cancer treatment: immunotherapy becomes safer and more effective

Virginia Tech researchers have discovered an innovative method in the fight against cancer: activating immune cells to attack cancer cells, using cytokines. This approach promises to provide a more precise and effective treatment without major side effects.

Innovative treatment against oncological conditions – Photo Archive

Cancer was responsible for more than 600,000 deaths in the US last year, according to the American Cancer Society. In the search for more effective treatments, researchers at Virginia Tech have developed a new method based on immunotherapy, which harnesses the body's immune system to fight cancer cells, according to 360Medical.

The Virginia Tech team presented in the journal Science Advances a new therapeutic approach that involves activating and reprogramming immune cells to attack and destroy cancer cells, using the cytokine protein. This small protein acts as a biochemical messenger between immune cells, coordinating their response.

Cytokines are powerful and very effective in stimulating immune cells to eliminate cancer cells. The problem is that they are so powerful that if they roam freely through the body, they will activate every immune cell they encounter, which can cause an overactive immune response and potentially fatal side effectsRong Tong, a chemical engineering major, said in a university press release.

The team invented a new way to use cytokine proteins in immunotherapy. In contrast to previous methods, this approach directs cytokines to the interior of tumors for weeks, preserving their structure and effectiveness.

Chemotherapy does not differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells, causing side effects such as hair loss and fatigue. Stimulating the immune system to fight tumors is a promising alternative, but excess cytokines can also uncontrollably activate healthy cells, generating serious side effects.

Scientists determined some time ago that cytokines can be used to activate and fight tumors, but they did not know how to localize them inside the tumor without exposing the rest of the body to toxicityTong explains.

A new strategy

The research team sought a balance between eliminating cancer cells and protecting healthy cells. They created specialized particles to direct the drug to the desired target so that it remains in the tumor environment after injection.

Particle size plays an important role in controlled drug delivery, ensuring prolonged drug presence and sustained therapeutic efficacyRong Tong explained.

The team created a new strategy for efficient drug delivery:

  • Anchoring cytokines to novel microparticles to limit damage to healthy cells.
  • Using anchored cytokines to activate the immune system and recruit immune cells to attack cancer cells.

Our strategy not only minimizes cytokine-induced damage to healthy cells, but also prolongs cytokine retention within the tumor“, says the expert. Thus, the strategy facilitates the recruitment of immune cells to attack tumors.

The next step is to combine the new localized cytokine therapy with FDA-approved immune checkpoint-blocking antibodies to reactivate immune cells and enable them to fight cancer cells.

When there is a tumor in the body, the body's immune cells are disabled by the cancer cellsTong explains.

Antibodies unlock the immune response, cytokines amplify it. Together, they stimulate the immune system to attack cancer. This combination effectively eliminated many tumors, the researchers say.

Revolution in cancer treatment

The team hopes the new treatment will lead to cancer therapies that are less aggressive to healthy cells. The cytokine anchoring method can also be applied to other immunostimulatory drugs. Researchers are still searching for more effective cancer treatments.

So far, most drugs used to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer have not been significantly successful.

Our goal is to create new solutions that allow researchers to test these drugs with already existing and approved therapies, providing both increased safety and efficacy”, mentions the specialist in the field of chemical engineering.