Early in the spring of 2015, researchers from the Imperial College London revealed the discovery of a new protein. The research team believes this protein, named lymphocyte expansion molecule (LEM), enhances the immune system when fighting viruses and cancers. Helping with the research was Harvard Medical School, ETH Zurich, and the Queen Mary University of London.
Now, scientists and doctors from Imperial, who were study leaders for the LEM protein discovery, are looking to develop a gene therapy that will boost the human immune system’s infection-fighting cells so they can be powerful enough to stop or treat viruses and cancers in humans. Professor Philip Ashton-Rickardt, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial is hoping this early research will soon develop as part of the physician’s armor when fighting viruses and cancers.
While conducting other research related to mice and their immune systems, researchers had an unexpected finding of this previously unknown protein – LEM. LEM makes a significant improvement in the number of T-cells to fight cancer cells and virus cells. Claudio Mauro, MD led the research out of the Centre for Biochemical Pharmacology, at the Queen Mary University of London’s William Harvey Research Institute, said,
“This study has identified the novel protein LEM and unlocked an unexpected way of enhancing the ability of our immune system to fight viruses or cancers. This is based on the ability of the protein LEM to regulate specific energy circuits, and particularly mitochondrial respiration, in a subset of white blood cells known as cytotoxic T-cells. This discovery has immediate consequences for the delivery of innovative therapeutic approaches to cancer. Its ramifications, however, are far greater as they can help explaining the biological mechanisms of widespread human diseases involving altered immune and inflammatory responses. These include chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, such as atherosclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.”
Patients have their own cells removed and modified with the addition of LEM-producing genes. Following modification, the patient undergoes an infusion of their own blood modified with LEM. The current theory is that human patients need as much as four infusions over two months. When clinical trials start in 36 months, the number of infusions needed for therapeutic help against cancer and viruses will be one of the many issues clinical trials in humans can help solve.
The discovery happened while researchers were screening mice with genetic mutations. They found what was until then, an unknown protein that helped mice produce up to ten times the amount of cytotoxic T-cells after exposure to a virus. Mice with the protein were better able to suppress the viral infection and are more resistant to cancer.
Curiously, they also made more of another type of T-cell called memory cells. Memory cells allow the mouse’s immune system to quickly recognize infections the system fought against previously and deploy cells from the body’s immune system quickly to the body area that needs help. It works for almost every mammal on earth.
At Imperial Innovations, the technology commercialization company for the College, researchers have filed two patents and founded a company called ImmunarT for commercialization of the new protein technology. Ashton-Rickardt remarked about commercialization opportunities,
“Cancer cells have ways to suppress T-cell activity, helping them to escape the immune system. Genetically engineering T-cells to augment their ability to fight cancer has been a goal for some time and techniques for modifying them already exist. By introducing an active version of the LEM gene into the T-cells of cancer patients, we hope we can provide a robust treatment for patients.
Next we will test the therapy in mice, make sure it is safe and see if it can be combined with other therapies. If all goes well, we hope to be ready to carry out human trials in about three years.”
The research in cancer vaccines is detailed and researchers cannot work without extensive knowledge of how immune system cells and cancer cells interact, according to the National Cancer Institute. While researchers try to create both preventative and therapeutic cancer vaccines, regulators are bracing for the job of helping to see that safe and effective cancer vaccine, gene and cell therapy products are introduced for the benefit of patients.
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