Lucia Mori and Gennaro De Libero, from University of Basel in Switzerland, said: "We are very excited about the immunological functions of this new T-cell population and the potential use of their TCRs in tumour cell therapy". "Our understanding of how these drugs kill cancer cells gives us a starting point for developing new therapies".
To test the therapeutic potential of these cells in vivo, the researchers injected T-cells able to recognize MR1 into mice bearing human cancer and with a human immune system.
The approach uses artificial thymic organoids to mimic the thymus and produce T-cells without needing to collect them from already-depleted patients.
They found 49 non-cancer drugs that selectively killed cancer cells and another 103 compounds that work against cancer cells but were less selective.
During their study, the scientists came across new T-cells in the blood of people. Therefore having the capacity to attack a wide range of cancers including breast, bone, cervical, colon, kidney, lung, ovary, prostate and skin.
The scanning recognises small parts of cellular proteins that are bound to cell-surface molecules called human leukocyte antigen (HLA), allowing killer T-cells to see what is occurring inside cells by scanning their surface.
This TCR recognizes a molecule present on the surface of a wide range of cancer cells as well as in numerous body's normal cells but, remarkably, is able to distinguish between healthy cells and cancerous ones, killing only the latter. Therefore the researchers believe that their T-cells leave healthy cells expressing MR1 unharmed because the immune cells can "smell" the metabolic signature of cancerous cells. The edited T-cells are then multiplied in the lab before being administered to patients.
T-cell therapy has exploded onto the cancer treatment scene in recent years through the increasingly popular CAR-T treatments.
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In lab tests, the first drug, called tepoxalin, acted on a component of cancer cells that often drives resistance to chemotherapy. More research is needed before any human trials could begin.
"Cancer-targeting via MR1-restricted T-cells is an exciting new frontier - it raises the prospect of a "one-size-fits-all" cancer treatment; a single type of T-cell that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population", he added.
Accordinf to researchers, it was "highly unusual" to find a TCR with such broad cancer specificity and this raised the prospect of "universal" cancer therapy.
This was previously considered impossible.
Right now, we don't yet know how many types of cancers a technique based on this receptor might treat. "There is no question that is a very exciting discovery, both for advancing our basic knowledge about the immune system and for the possibility of future new medicines", said Davis.
There's a lot more to learn here before we can truly proclaim this is some kind of universal cancer treatment, but there certainly look to be some exciting discoveries on the horizon.
Check out more details in the findings that are reported in Nature Immunology.