Cancer: The Pill Against Metastases?

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Researchers are discovering new ways to treat cancer in metastases

If metastases form in the case of cancer, the chances of a cure for the patient are often rather poor to this day. However, Josef Penninger's research group at the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) discovered a new mechanism that can be used to stimulate the body's own immune cells to fight metastases. The pill against metastases would theoretically be possible on this basis, according to the groundbreaking announcement.

The treatment of metastases is one of the "biggest challenges in tumor therapy", molecular biologist Josef Penninger and his team write in a current press release. Here, the researchers discovered a new mechanism that allows immune cells to attack the metastatic tumors. This is how the body's own cells are activated in the fight against cancer. The results could be “the cornerstone for developing a pillagainst metastases, ”wrote the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology in its current communication.

Using the immune system for cancer therapy According to the researchers, the immune system plays an important role not only in the case of infectious diseases, but also in the detection and destruction of cancer cells. Penninger and colleagues report that cancer immunotherapy, which involves the whole body in the fight against the disease, has recently been pursued more intensively in cancer treatment . The Austrian scientists have now - in cooperation with colleagues from Australia and Germany - proven that the "protein Cbl-b is a kind of molecular brake for immune cells", so that the metastases are not properly addressed. "If you release this brake, the so-called natural killer cells (NK cells) can fight tumor metastases very effectively," the researchers write. The lead author Magdalena Paolino explained that when the Cbl-b protein is switched off in the NK cells, "these are focused, so to speak, and significantly reduce metastases from breast tumors and melanomas."

Holy Grail of Cancer Therapy According to their own statements, the scientists have not only succeeded in “identifying a path through which Cbl-b regulates the function of the NK cells”, but they have also worked together with the Lead Discovery Center of the Max Planck Society in Dortmund develops a molecule that blocks the receptors responsible for it. "If we specifically block these receptors with our molecule - administered orally or as an injection - the metastases in our genetic models are significantly reduced," emphasized Magdalena Paolino. The findings indicate that it will be possible in the future to stimulate the immune system with special medicines to destroy the cancer metastases. "Such a development would be a holy grail for cancer therapy," the researchers sum up. However, “in spite of everything, further experiments would have to follow in order to deepen our knowledge and to be able to rule out possible side effects,” explained Josef Penninger.

Since metastases are one of the main causes of cancer patient death, the development of an efficient therapeutic approach could probably significantly reduce the number of cancer deaths. It is also quite conceivable that targeted activation of the immune system will generally make cancer relatively easy to treat in the future. However, clinical studies are now required to check the newly discovered mechanism for treating metastatic tumors and to determine possible risks and side effects. (fp)

Image: Rainer Sturm /

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