A new type of T cell capable of recognizing and killing most human cancer cells has just been discovered. Researchers at Cardiff University in Wales hit upon the entirely new class of T cell while examining immune cells at a local blood bank.  This T cell carries a novel T cell receptor (TCR) which recognizes most cancers, while ignoring healthy cells.
Scientific breakthroughs in cell-based medicine are fueling a revolution in cancer treatment. Cancer immunotherapy, and in particular CAR T cell therapy, is of the most exciting innovations to hit the medical field in years. One of the drawbacks of this type of therapy, though, is that engineered T cells are designed to treat individual patients.
Traditional T cell therapy depends upon T cells recognizing cancer-specific pieces of protein (antigens), displayed on the surface of a cancer cell. In order to recognize an antigen as “foreign”, the T cell relies on the patient’s specific antigen-presenting machinery, or the “HLA” complex of that individual. Because HLA type varies from person to person, current T cell therapies are not suited to a wide range of patients and cancer types.
Enter the newly discovered Killer T cell. Whereas conventional T cells are HLA-dependent, this T cell is not. Instead of recognizing antigens presented by the HLA complex, these T cells have a TCR that recognizes antigens presented by a similar complex, called MR1. MR1 does not vary from patient to patient. This means that a cancer immunotherapy designed around this type of T cell can potentially be used universally.
In early cell culture studies, the Cardiff University scientists were able to demonstrate that MR1-restricted T cells could recognize and kill most human cancer cell types while ignoring healthy cells. When the authors extended their studies to mice, they showed that the newly discovered T cells could induce regression of leukemia. Further studies showed the T cells to be capable of killing patient-sourced melanoma cells in vitro, without affecting healthy cells.
Though much work remains to be done, this work is being hailed as a major breakthrough, offering the possibility of developing a universal cancer immunotherapy.
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- Crowther M. D., et al. Genome-wide CRISPR–Cas9 screening reveals ubiquitous T cell cancer targeting via the monomorphic MHC class I-related protein MR1. Nature Immunology. 21, 178–185. Jan 2020.