Sometimes when people hear scientific jargon they tune it out. After all, it’s usually in Latin or Greek, related to obscure concepts and presented with the enthusiasm level of lint. Scientists are, in the main, solitary figures. Social interaction is not their forte. That’s why when someone like Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson comes along they get treated like rock stars. It’s even more fitting that the latter is honoring the life’s work of the former by re-launching his legendary TV show, Cosmos. What’s interesting about the new version of the show is that it’s taking apart the arguments of creationists one at a time. From why an eyeball is easily predictable and not too complex to evolve to why selective breeding of animals (think from wolf to dog) is just a manual version of evolution. Others have been jumping on board the science bandwagon as well. From loudly debunking the anti-vac crowd, a group whom I loathe, to proving that the Earth not only revolves around the sun but that it also revolves on its own axis. Thus do we end up with seasons and time zones, respectively.
It’s not magic folks.
But this next bit might seem like it. Sarah C. P. Williams, from Science Magazine, reports that scientists may have come up with a real cure for cancer and it’s not something you order out of the back of some bullshit magazine or buy from Kevin Trudeau.
And it involves neither crystals or Vitamin C.
Survivor. When mice with human tumors received doses of anti-CD47, which sets the immune system against tumor cells, the cancers shrank and disappeared.
A single drug can shrink or cure human breast, ovary, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate tumors that have been transplanted into mice, researchers have found. The treatment, an antibody that blocks a “do not eat” signal normally displayed on tumor cells, coaxes the immune system to destroy the cancer cells.
A decade ago, biologist Irving Weissman of the Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, discovered that leukemia cells produce higher levels of a protein called CD47 than do healthy cells. CD47, he and other scientists found, is also displayed on healthy blood cells; it’s a marker that blocks the immune system from destroying them as they circulate. Cancers take advantage of this flag to trick the immune system into ignoring them. In the past few years, Weissman’s lab showed that blocking CD47 with an antibody cured some cases of lymphomas and leukemias in mice by stimulating the immune system to recognize the cancer cells as invaders. Now, he and colleagues have shown that the CD47-blocking antibody may have a far wider impact than just blood cancers.
“What we’ve shown is that CD47 isn’t just important on leukemias and lymphomas,” says Weissman. “It’s on every single human primary tumor that we tested.” Moreover, Weissman’s lab found that cancer cells always had higher levels of CD47 than did healthy cells. How much CD47 a tumor made could predict the survival odds of a patient.
To determine whether blocking CD47 was beneficial, the scientists exposed tumor cells to macrophages, a type of immune cell, and anti-CD47 molecules in petri dishes. Without the drug, the macrophages ignored the cancerous cells. But when the anti-CD47 was present, the macrophages engulfed and destroyed cancer cells from all tumor types.
Next, the team transplanted human tumors into the feet of mice, where tumors can be easily monitored. When they treated the rodents with anti-CD47, the tumors shrank and did not spread to the rest of the body. In mice given human bladder cancer tumors, for example, 10 of 10 untreated mice had cancer that spread to their lymph nodes. Only one of 10 mice treated with anti-CD47 had a lymph node with signs of cancer. Moreover, the implanted tumor often got smaller after treatment—colon cancers transplanted into the mice shrank to less than one-third of their original size, on average. And in five mice with breast cancer tumors, anti-CD47 eliminated all signs of the cancer cells, and the animals remained cancer-free 4 months after the treatment stopped.
“We showed that even after the tumor has taken hold, the antibody can either cure the tumor or slow its growth and prevent metastasis,” says Weissman.
Although macrophages also attacked blood cells expressing CD47 when mice were given the antibody, the researchers found that the decrease in blood cells was short-lived; the animals turned up production of new blood cells to replace those they lost from the treatment, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cancer researcher Tyler Jacks of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge says that although the new study is promising, more research is needed to see whether the results hold true in humans. “The microenvironment of a real tumor is quite a bit more complicated than the microenvironment of a transplanted tumor,” he notes, “and it’s possible that a real tumor has additional immune suppressing effects.”
Another important question, Jacks says, is how CD47 antibodies would complement existing treatments. “In what ways might they work together and in what ways might they be antagonistic?” Using anti-CD47 in addition to chemotherapy, for example, could be counterproductive if the stress from chemotherapy causes normal cells to produce more CD47 than usual.
Weissman’s team has received a $20 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to move the findings from mouse studies to human safety tests. “We have enough data already,” says Weissman, “that I can say I’m confident that this will move to phase I human trials.”
Here’s the thing. There are several scientists who believe, but can not yet prove, that this treatment could be stand-alone. That would mean that cancer victims could show up ate their local doctor, get a shot or series of shots and be cured.
That doesn’t mean it will work but it most certainly can. And even if this isn’t a 100% cure I would bet good money that this information could be used in conjunction with other treatments.
In other words, we just got one step closer to a real cure.
Worst case scenario, according to a couple of scientists I spoke to is that cancer could be just as manageable as diabetes.
No longer a death sentence it would just be one more thing to watch out for.