Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Backing a long shot

Together with many other cancer patients what I want most is a research breakthrough that will provide a new and much more effective way of treating my illness. Since being diagnosed in 2011 I've been following various research initiatives, one of which has developed into a recognised new treatment for Leiomyosarcoma. Unfortunately the effectiveness of this new treatment is limited and, whilst it's certainly a useful addition to the existing options, it doesn't fundamentally change the balance of power between the disease and the patient.  It does demonstrate however that new treatments can emerge in a timeframe of help to me.
There is one research programme that may offer the possibility of something better. Researchers at Stanford University are trying to unlock the potential of the human immune system to destroy cancer cells. They have identified that many cancer cells have, on their surface, a protein that acts as a "don't eat me" signal to macrophage cells. Macrophages are cells of the immune system, their job is to identify aberrant cells within the body and destroy them. Macrophages would normally be expected to target cancer cells but the "don't eat me" signal prevents them from doing so protecting the cancer and allowing it to grow.
This mechanism reminds me of being on safari in Zambia. If I was to stand ten yards away from a lion in South Luangwa national park I'm pretty certain the lion would attack me, however if I sit at the same distance in a totally open jeep the lion doesn't see me as a target. The jeep is a powerful "don't eat me" signal to the lion - so powerful that thousands of safari goers literally trust their lives to it every year.
The Stanford researchers have found a way of blocking the cancer cell's "don't eat me" signal so that the macrophages see the cancer cells for what they are. When a mouse, into which human tumour cells have been transplanted, is treated with an antibody that blocks the signal the mouse's immune system destroys the cancer cells. One of the things that is really significant about this research is that this "don't eat me" signal is found in many different types of cancer. This leads to hope that this treatment will be effective against many forms of the disease. LMS has been identified as one of the cancers that this treatment may be effective against.
My explanation here is an over simplification of what is really going on, but it does give a flavour of how this research hopes to deliver a significant blow against many cancers. The researchers are planning to launch human trials either late this year or early next. I know of no more exciting development in LMS treatment research than this. The odds of this being an effective treatment in humans are still very small but at least we have a horse in the race.
You can read more about this research here.
As I mentioned lions above these seem like appropriate pictures with which to end this post. These fine looking animals are residents of Chester Zoo. No "don't eat me" signal was required to take these pictures - the wire fence was enough!


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