The new app, developed in collaboration with Centre of the Cell, was unveiled at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. It allows the public to test out three different cancer therapies on a virtual tumour to see how these treatments stimulate the immune system to destroy cancer cells.
The app is inspired by the research team attempting to build artificial human tumours in the laboratory. The scientists hope that the new techniques they are developing will give them a better way of testing new immunotherapies like those featured in the app.
The first therapy in the app is called CAR-T cell therapy. Immune cells known as T cells are taken from a patient, manipulated to recognise cancer cells and put back into the patient. The T cells should recognise and destroy cancer cells. Even a small number of CAR-T cells could attack a cancer but this is an experimental treatment and may only work for some cancer types.
The second therapy is called immune checkpoint therapy. This treatment wakes up the immune cells that have been switched off by the tumour cells, allowing them to fight the cancer. This therapy can be very successful in some types of cancers but it has many difficult side effects.
The third therapy that people can test out using the app is macrophage therapy. Macrophages are part of the immune system and move around to fight infection but may also help the tumour grow. Macrophage therapy could potentially target and destroy macrophages in the tumour. This could automatically wake up T cells, allowing them to kill the cancer cells. This is an experimental therapy and more research is needed before it can be used in patients.
Professor Fran Balkwill, project lead and Cancer Research UK scientist from Barts Cancer Institute and Director of Centre of the Cell at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Our new app shows how certain cancer therapies destroy the disease. In the past, researchers tended to grow cancer cells on their own on plastic dishes but the body isn’t plastic. So our group, and others around the world, are trying to grow cancer cells along with other normal cells that get recruited to the cancer to help it spread. We want to make cancer models that are more like what we would see in people. It’s also important to look at what’s happening around the cancer cells and our models should demonstrate this.”
Nell Barrie, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said: “Finding new and better ways to do research is important in the fight against cancer. Building an accurate model to understand the different kinds of cells in a tumour could help scientists do better and more efficient tests, and help researchers find out early if a treatment will work.”
Source: Cancer Research UK