Human versions of a cancer-immune “supermouse” are spearheading a multi-million-pound research project aimed at finding a cure for one of the deadliest forms of the disease.
Scientists are to search for special individuals whose innate immune systems provide a powerful defence against cancer.
Their cancer resistance mirrors that of a mutant lab mouse that astonished researchers with its ability to shrug off aggressive cancers.
The bold plan is to use white blood cells from these people – who make up a small fraction of the population – to develop a potential cure for pancreatic cancer in the next four years.
The disease has one of the highest fatality rates of any cancer, with only 3.3 per cent of patients surviving five years after diagnosis.
With adequate funding the team hopes to launch a first clinical trial as early as next year.
Alex Blyth, chief executive of LIfT BioSciences, the British biotech company pioneering the treatment in partnership with King’s College London, said: “This could be game-changing. It’s a cell therapy, essentially taking cells from people who have a high-functioning innate immune system and transferring them to people with a lower level of cancer-killing activity.
“On average, cancer patients have much lower activity in their granulocytes, a family of white blood cells that has consistently been overlooked. It wasn’t even recognised that they killed cancer cells until recently.”
Mr Blyth – whose mother died from pancreatic cancer in 2014 – added: “Currently 97 per cent of patients with pancreatic cancer today will be dead in five years, and that hasn’t really changed in 40 years. It’s a tragedy. That’s why we’ve made it our number one priority.”
Early research indicates that the same approach could work for other solid cancers, such as those affecting the prostate, breast and bladder.
The project developed from the discovery in 1999 of a mutant mouse with an almost miraculous ability to ward off aggressive cancers.
Scientists at Wake Forest University in the US found that the “supermouse” passed on its cancer-beating powers to 40 per cent of its offspring. When white blood cells from these mice were injected to normal mice, they too became cancer-resistant.
It was a surprise because the cells formed part of the innate, not adaptive, immune system. They were “granulocytes” – cleaners that mop up invaders by engulfing them. It was discovered that a fraction of the human population also have anti-cancer immune cells.