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Expert opinion: Scientists 'find cancer's Achilles heel'

Published: Fri 04 Mar 2016
Expert opinion: Scientists 'find cancer's Achilles heel'

One of the principal reasons that cancer has proven so difficult to cure is its extreme variability – every patient effectively has a different disease, which will have different reactions to cancer drugs and other therapies.

In the study published yesterday by a group at University College London, scientists showed that this variability extends to the types of proteins present on the surface of cancer cells. This is important, as it is these proteins that might allow the immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. Many previous attempts to harness the immune system in cancer treatment have failed, and this might be explained by the variable appearance of these exterior proteins.

The findings of this study suggest that each patient might need a tailored therapy to address this, which is not good news as this would almost certainly be prohibitively expensive. However, the groups findings also indicate that patients whose tumours have a very broad range of different proteins on their surface might benefit from a number of existing therapies designed to take the break off the immune system, allowing it to kill cancer cells far more easily. These so called "check point inhibitor" therapies can have significant side effects, and restricting their use to patients whose tumours are most likely to be destroyed by this approach could therefore be a major advance in cancer treatment.

Prof Richard Morgan, Professor of Molecular Oncology and Director, Institute of Cancer Therapeutics reacting to BBC News article.

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