It generally pays to be careful when proclaiming that a new treatment “may put an end to cancer.” That being said, recent research shows that drugs that utilize the cancer-fighting technique of CD47-blocking will result in the shrinkage of primary tumors and could serve as a single treatment for all cancers. CD47-blocking has been testing as a treatment for lymphomas and leukemias, but new research has shown that it has vastly greater potential than originally thought. As a kicker, CD47-blocking doesn’t even kill cancer itself; it gets your body to do it.
CD47 is a protein created by cancer cells in relatively high quantities. It isn’t specific to cancer cells, however. It’s also generated by healthy ones. The CD47 protein, it has been discovered, is basically a large sign that cells hold up to the immune system that says “Don’t eat me! I’m cool, man.” As you can probably imagine, the fact that cancer cells manage to produce this protein is not particularly helpful. This ability for cancer cells to fly under the radar and masquarade as healthy cells, at least in this one respect, is one of the things that makes them so notoriously hard to get rid of. For the moment anyways.
Biologist Irving Weissman of the Stanford University School of Medicine has been looking into this protein for years, and just recently, that research has really started paying off. The idea is a simple one. If you can stop cancer cells from producing CD47, the immune system will “eat” them and, bam, no more cancerous cells. But it can’t be that easy, can it? For the moment, it’s looking like it might be.
So far, CD47 testing has only taken place in mice, but the results seem promising. The research team took a whole bunch of mice and transplanted a variety of human tumors into their feet — where the tumors could be easily monitored — and then treated some of the mice with anti-CD47. In the case of bladder cancers, the cancer metastasized to untreated rodents’ lymph nodes in 10 out of 10 cases. In treated mice, the rate dropped to 1 out of 10. Anti-CD47 can also shrink tumors, apparently, and shrunk colon tumors in treated mice to less than a third of their original size on average. For a kicker, anti-CD47 completely obliterated breast cancer cells in 5 mice, who proceeded to stay cancer-free for months afterwards.
The potential downside here is that CD47 blocking wouldn’t exclusively affect cancer cells, meaning that there could be some collateral damage as the immune system starts its attacks. Tests show, however, that any collateral damage is far from severe and is vastly outweighed by the damage done to tumors and other cancerous cells.
So far, CD47 blocking drugs have only been tested on mice, but as a result of these studies, Weissman and his team have been given $20 million by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the plan is to use this money to go from mice to men. There are plenty of difference between mice and humans that could change the way this all works, enough to warrant significant testing, but so far, the research looks extremely promising. I wouldn’t advise waiting around for someone to declare that “cancer is over!” because it seems that is rarely how science works, but it seems we’re on the cusp of, if nothing else, unprecedented effective treatments, and that’s nothing to complain about.
(via Science, image credit Shutterstock)
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