News & Events

Cancer Immunotherapy rated Science’s top breakthough of 2013

Article Date: 16.12.13
Category: Clinical Trials

Cancer Immunotherapy has been rated by Science Magazine as the breakthrough area of 2013.

Beating 9 other contenders to the accolade, new cancer immunotherapy approaches were hailed as a potential turning point in the fight against cancer. 

For a long time, cancer immunotherapy approaches have shown much promise in the laboratory, but despite some notable exceptions, have in many cases have struggled to replicate these successes in the clinic.

However, Science’s editors pointed to recent clinical trial successes over the last year, where novel immunotherapy approaches have shown major promise, including for advanced cancers, and  noted even some skeptics have conceded a “corner has been turned” in the fight against cancer.

One of the crucial breakthroughs they point to stems from the pioneering work of James Allison on a receptor called CTLA-4. The discovery of CTLA-4 emerged from fundamental research into how T cells function, and it was found to be present on the surface of T cells and suppress their functions. Prof Allison developed a strategy to block receptors such as CTLA-4 from carrying out these suppressive functions – the being that blocking their suppressive effects would unleash powerful immune responses against tumours. Importantly, this strategy – or checkpoint blockade as it has become known, is being extended to other inhibitory immune receptors expressed on the T cell surface.

Advances in a second area, involving engineering of T cells to express potent immune receptors (chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) or T cell receptors (TCRs)) targeting proteins on the cancer cell surface, was also hailed as highly significant. This field, which again emerged out of fundamental studies into how T cells and antibodies function, has been pioneered by the research of Prof Steve Rosenberg and Prof Carl June, and has seen dramatic results in recent clinical trials in adult leukaemia.  

Clearly we are only beginning to scratch the surface of how to harness the immune system in the fight against cancer – but the accolade of Breakthrough of the Year to cancer immunotherapy highlights the huge clinical potential of this fascinating area of biomedical science.

To read Science’s article on the Breakthrough of the Year, click here.