December 16, 2016
For decades, doctors and scientists have pursued practical and affordable treatments for cancer. For the most part, they have been met with uneven success, but biotechnology companies, Cellectis, Editas Medicine, and Intellia Therapeutics, are working on a new method of treatment with wide-reaching implications.
The discovery that the immune system fights off cancer cells to some extent inspired an idea. The immune system may be able to be convinced to properly seek and destroy cancer cells in the body.
A Basic Overview of the Treatment
The basic premise of the treatment is simple. The enforcers of the immune system are known as T-Cells. They are responsible for patrolling the body, investigating any suspicious cells or organisms, and destroying any foreign particles they find. The treatment aims to reprogram T-Cells to seek and target cancer cells and kill them as if they were any other foreign pathogen.
Naturally, you can’t just tell T-Cells to pick a specific target. You also can’t just take the T-Cells from one person and put them in another. The T-Cells will recognize everything as a foreign entity and begin to kill the patient. Furthermore, the T-Cells must be very precise. If they are sent to eliminate a malignant tumor in the brain, any “collateral damage” to the rest of the brain would be extremely detrimental.
Reprogramming the T-Cells
The first step is reprogramming the T-Cells. Using a technique known as TALENs, geneticists are able to cut and alter the genetic coding of the T-Cells to transform them into elite agents that can be ordered to attack a specific threat. Essentially, they function as universal T-Cells. The quality that makes a T-Cell destroy foreign particles is removed, and instead will only activate their defensive capabilities if a specific chemical is added. Through this process, this extra layer of the immune system can be turned on and off.
Next, the genetic code has been altered in a way that only allows the cell to attack a particle that has two different markers on it. This ensures that the cell only attacks the intended target, thereby eliminating the threat of collateral damage.
The idea is to offer these universal T-Cells to a cancer patient, turn on the cells, and watch them consume the cancer.
Though a cure for cancer may be the initial need that prompted this treatment method, it is hardly its only application. If you can train the immune system to kill anything you wanted with extreme efficiency, there’s no limit to the ailments you can cure.
HIV has been floated as a logical candidate. As an autoimmune virus, it attacks and destroys the patient’s existing immune system and hides its identity within the body. Injecting a collection of reprogrammed T-Cells could provide a one-time workable cure for the disease. Outside of HIV and cancer, other autoimmune diseases have also been proposed, such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and lupus.
It’s amazing how the advances in one area of technology may come in ways no one could have anticipated. We’re accustomed to vaccines, antibiotics, pills, and surgeries as standard ways we cure ailments, but the idea that diseases can be cured through genetic engineering has likely taken a lot of people by surprise. As a burgeoning field of study, we can only speculate as to what the future of this field has in store.
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