July 12, 2018 -- A new approach to immune therapy for cancer could be a "game changer."
Currently, disabled viruses are used to carry new genetic material into immune cells called T cells in order to get them to target cancer. But these disabled viruses are in short supply, resulting in long wait times for them, the Washington Post reported.
A team of scientists say they've developed a new, faster method to reprogram T cells, which normally target bacterial or fungal infections, into cancer fighters.
Rather than using disabled viruses, the scientists found that shocking T-cells with electricity relaxes the membranes that surround the cells, enabling the insertion of new genetic material, the Post reported.
The research by James Wilson, director of the gene therapy program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, and his colleagues was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
"It's a turning point," Vincenzo Cerundolo, director, Human Immunology Unit, Oxford University, U.K., told the Post. He was not involved in the new research.
"It is a game-changer in the field and I'm sure that this technology has legs," said Cerundolo, who added that the research could lead to cheaper and faster immunotherapy.
Being able to quickly reprogram T cells to become cancer fighters is "extraordinarily significant," Fred Ramsdell, vice president of research at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco, told the Post. He was not involved in the study.
But the scientists who developed the new approach noted that they need to conduct more research.
"There will have to be discussions with regulatory agencies," study co-author Kevan Herold, an endocrinologist and immunologist at Yale University, told the Post.
"All of us are aware of the potential pitfalls here," and there is a "critical first question: Are these cells safe to be put back into people?"
"We will begin to see this kind of technology brought forth in human clinical trials" in the next one to three years, Ramsdell told the Post.
Herold said it is too soon to assess how much the treatment may cost, but noted that immunotherapies are not inexpensive.
Since 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been approving genetically altered immune cells for small groups of patients with cancers such as aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma or a rare form childhood leukemia, the Post reported.
Experimental trials using immunotherapy to treat cancers such as multiple myeloma and melanoma skin cancer have yielded promising results.