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Researchers overseas have discovered a new type of immune cell that could lead to universal immunotherapy for multiple cancers. Published in the journal Nature Immunology, their findings outline the identification of a new T cell receptor that can detect and kill lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, prostate, bone, kidney, cervical and ovarian cancers, while sparing nontumor cells.

The T cell can identify tumor cells expressing a cell surface molecule called MR1, which is found on every cell in the body. MR1 is believed to flag the abnormal metabolism inside the cancer cell to let the immune system know it may be time to attack. It is a first-of-its-kind discovery that ultimately caught the scientists by surprise.

Lead study author Professor Andrew Sewell from Cardiff University told Newsweek, “We were looking for something else. All the best scientific discoveries are made by mistake.” Sewell added the finding could raise the possibility of a “one-size-fits-all” cancer treatment.

Cellular immunotherapy has been a growing area of science over the past decade. FDA-approved therapies, such as chimeric antigen receptor or CAR T therapy, have become viable treatment options for leukemia and lymphoma patients who have failed other treatments. Scientists around the country, including those at Moffitt Cancer Center, are working to develop new CAR T and TCR (T cell receptor) therapies for patients with blood and solid tumor cancers.

Dr. Jose Conejo-Garcia, chair, Immunology Department at Moffitt Cancer Center

Dr. Jose Conejo-Garcia, chair of Moffitt’s Immunology Department, says the new T cell discovery is promising. “This new T cell has great potential for development of future treatment strategies, but it is still too soon to say if and when it could be used successfully in patients. Until we understand the exact nature of the ligand recognized by this T cell clone, the possibility of recognition of healthy cells at unsuspected locations will be a major concern.”  

While the research team did test the T cell in human cell lines, Conejo-Garcia says much more research needs to be done before a therapy can be developed that could be tested in clinical trials.