Stanford scientists were able to engineer immune cells known as macrophages to detect and flag cancer in mice. The researchers hope the technique can be used for early cancer diagnostics in humans. Immune cells imbued with the power to detect and reveal tumors could be a new method of diagnosing cancer, according to a study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The research, performed in mice, involved modifying a specific class of immune cells to patrol the body for cancer and send a signal through blood or urine when they found trouble. “We’ve been after early cancer diagnostics for years, but this time, we came at it from another angle,” said Sanjiv “Sam” Gambhir, MD, Ph.D., professor and chair of radiology and director of the Canary Center at Stanford for Cancer Early Detection.
“We said, if nature doesn’t give you sufficient signal that cancer is present, can we force the body to make one? In this case, can we force immune cells to emit detectable markers if cancer exists somewhere in the body ” The question prompted the engineering of a sort of immune cell-turned-informant; therefore which Gambhir said is possibly the first in-animal example of a phenomenon called “immunodiagnostics.
” Like immunotherapy, immunodiagnostics repurposes the body’s own cells to perform a task in this case; reporting the presence of disease or damaged cells. Because Currently; the technique can detect tumors as small as 4 millimeters in diameter about the size of a pencil top eraser which outperforms some of the most advanced early tumor detection methods out there; Gambhir said.
He said the immune cell signals are flagging a specific class of malfunctioning cells, which includes tumor cells; but is not limited to them. The technique also could be tailored to detect more than just cancer; and could potentially flag other disorders; such as multiple sclerosis or chronic inflammation, he said.
Flagging a specific class
A paper detailing the findings of the study is publish online March 18 in Nature Biotechnology. Gambhir; who is the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor for Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research; is the senior author. Amin Aalipour, an MD-PHD student; is the lead author.