34. Dendritic Cells That Attack Cancer
Another approach to cancer therapy takes advantage of the normal role of the dendritic cell as an immune educator. Dendritic cells grab antigens from viruses, bacteria, or other organisms and wave them at T cells to recruit their help in an initial T cell immune response. This works well against foreign cells that enter the body, but cancer cells often evade the self/non-self detection system. By modifying dendritic cells, researchers are able to trigger a special kind of autoimmune response that includes a T cell attack of the cancer cells. Because a cancer antigen alone is not enough to rally the immune troops, scientists first fuse a cytokine to a tumor antigen with the hope that this will send a strong antigenic signal. Next, they grow a patient's dendritic cells in the incubator and let them take up this fused cytokine-tumor antigen. This enables the dendritic cells to mature and eventually display the same tumor antigens as appear on the patient's cancer cells. When these special mature dendritic cells are given back to the patient, they wave their newly acquired tumor antigens at the patient's immune system, and those T cells that can respond mount an attack on the patient's cancer cells.