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Friday, 23 June, 2000, 00:27 GMT 01:27 UK
Find boosts cancer vaccine hopes
injection
Could a 'vaccine' help the body fight cancer?
Scientists claim to have found new opportunities for a "cancer vaccine" to encourage attacks on cancer cells.

The team, from the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), claim they have found five new proteins - and their corresponding genes, which could act as targets for a fightback from the body's own immune system.

With many diseases, the immune system is able to recognise the invading bacteria as foreign and launch an attack, sending special defence cells to latch onto and destroy.

But cancer cells, because they are mutations of normal human cells, do not appear foreign, so are generally allowed to reproduce unmolested.

What scientists have been looking for are proteins which are found on the tumour cells - but not on every other cell of the body - which provoke some sort of immune response.

If these can be identified, they hope that the number of these on the surface of tumour cells can be boosted, so they present an obvious target for "killer" cells in the body's immune system.

It would then take on the cancer while leaving healthy cells alone.

Early trials

Other teams have managed to locate such proteins - particularly for melanoma, the dangerous skin cancer - and a "vaccine" to alert the immune system to them is in very early safety trials.

However, the UCSF team say they have found five more proteins which could be targets.

The drawback is that these were found in mouse cancer cells, and while the experts are confident that they also exist on human lymphomas, colon cancer and lung cancer cells, they are not yet certain of this.

Dr Lewis Lanier, senior author of a paper on the find, published in the journal Immunity, said: "One of the major goals in cancer research is finding how to enhance the immune system's ability to fight the disease, just as we have contained smallpox and polio with vaccines.

"The ultimate goal of this research is to deliberately establish auto-immunity against cancer."

Because the team know which genes work to produce these proteins, it is hoped that drugs could be developed which encouraged more protein production.

Cancer defence trick

But in some more deadly cancers, the team suspects the cancer has managed to switch off these genes altogether. If they could be switched back on with gene therapy, then these hard-to-treat cancers might also become a target.

Professor Mary Collins, professor of immunology at University College London, said that the finding was "encouraging"

She added: "If it involves cancer cells other than those from melanoma, it would be a breakthrough.

"The problem is that mice are not the same as humans."

She said it would be several years before humans could expect to see any practical benefit from an experimental advance of this type.

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