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Scientists Retraining Coronavirus-Specific T Cells to Target Cancer Cells in Novel Immune-Oncology Approach

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 16 Sep 2020
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An international team of scientists are examining whether the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 could be repurposed as the next generation of cancer immunotherapy.

The immune system helps protect against viruses, bacteria and anything harmful, but does not protect against cancer because it fails to recognize cancer as a threat. Dr. Shashi Gujar, a scientist with the Department of Pathology at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), along with partners in France, Demark, Germany, the US and India, believes that this is where viruses like COVID-19-causing coronavirus can play a key role.

When a person becomes infected with SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, their immune system recognizes the virus and activates a particular type of immune cells called “T cells.” These T cells act in a highly precise manner and kill only virus-harbouring cells. Multiple vaccines being tested internationally have shown a similar capacity to activate these coronavirus-specific T-cells. These T cells can establish a memory response that maintains active protection against possible re-infection with the virus, which means that coronavirus-specific T cells can hunt for the virus inside the body, eliminate the areas where the virus replicates, and aid in the recovery from COVID-19.

Dr. Gujar and his team are trying to get these same T cells to go after tumors by getting the cancer cells to express the same identifying tags as the coronavirus-infected cells, and become the targets of the anti-coronavirus T cells. Dr. Gujar and his international collaborators are currently in the process of testing the coronavirus-specific tags (called as epitopes in scientific terms) that exist in different human populations. From there, they will prepare a cocktail of these tags that can be used in human clinics to cure cancers. According to Dr. Gujar, what makes this research truly unique is that due to infection or vaccination, the coronavirus-specific cells have the potential to be found in millions of individuals worldwide- making the use of this cancer immunotherapy useful for masses globally.

“We’ve figured out how to trick your coronavirus-specific T cells to think that your cancer is infected by the virus,” said Dr. Gujar. “The key is to do this without using the virus or actually causing the real infection.”

“Once we know it works, this immunotherapy will actually be a straightforward process, and may be something we’ll be able to start using on patients sooner rather than later. This is a highly novel and practical strategy to harness virus-specific T cells against various types of cancers. That’s what makes it so exciting,” added Dr. Gujar.

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