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Our Scientific Director Explains

Our Scientific Director Dr. David Flavell explains about the life saving research work being funded by Leukaemia Busters.

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A Kiss of Death that Becomes a Breath of Life

Our generation is living through a remarkable revolution that is already seeing treatment for a wide variety of cancers transformed for the better. Immunotherapy is leading the way in a new frontier in the fight against a wide range of malignant diseases that also includes leukaemia. Immunotherapy is the field that Leukaemia Busters scientists have been working in for almost 30 years, striving to develop antibody-based treatments that will work more selectively, effectively and safely than existing chemotherapy. Finally the hard work that has involved thousands of scientists worldwide over several decades is beginning to pay off as antibody and cell-based therapies begin to have a significant impact against solid cancers, in particular acute leukaemias and lymphoma.

You will probably have heard the term immunotherapy many times in the press and on television but exactly what is it and how does it work? One thing it is not is one single thing but a collection of different types of therapeutic approach that all have one thing in common, they all use some element of the patients own immune system or some component borrowed from the immune system such as an antibody to kill the unwanted cancer cell. This can mean using specially engineered antibodies to directly kill the cancer cell or to boost the patients immunity against their cancer. In yet another type of immunotherapy the patient’s own killer immune cells (known as cytotoxic T-cell and NK cells) are genetically engineered to go in pursuit to kill cancer cells that might be lurking in any part of the patient’s body. This is much the same way that our immune system protects us against infectious diseases and it is very powerful but also very complex system involving the interaction of dozens of different types of blood cells all acting in a coordinated fashion. It is this complexity and the unravelling of the secrets of immunity that is the reason it has taken so long to reach the point we are at today. It has taken millions of scientist working hours stretching back almost 150 years to a time when immunotherapy was first attempted (with some partial success) in the 19th century by the New York pioneer physician and scientist William Coley.

Now that the technology exists to probe and understand the complexities of the immune system we can actually watch the process of cancer and leukaemia cells being eliminated by killer immune cells using special microscopic techniques. The process is reminiscent of a kiss as the killer cell approaches the cancer cell and gently comes into contact with it. It is however a kiss of death as poisonous molecules pass from the killer cell to the cancer cell as they make contact. In the brave new world of immunotherapy it is a kiss of death that carries a breath of life for the patients it is intended to cure.


Photo caption. Two genetically engineered killer immune cells (green) attack and kill a cancer cell (red) in the “kiss of death”.

To see “the kiss of death” in action follow this link: