How AI found the words to kill cancer cells

Scanning electron micrograph of a human T lymphocyte (also called a T cell) from the immune system of a healthy donor.

Using new machine learning techniques, researchers at UC San Francisco (UCSF), in collaboration with a team at IBM Research, have developed a virtual molecular library of thousands of “command sentences” for cells, based on combinations of “words” that guided engineered immune cells to seek out and tirelessly kill cancer cells.

The work, published online Dec. 8, 2022, in Science, represents the first time such sophisticated computational approaches have been applied to a field that until now has progressed largely through ad hoc tinkering and engineering cells with existing—rather than synthesized—molecules. 

The advance allows scientists to predict which elements—natural or synthesized—they should include in a cell to give it the precise behaviors required to respond effectively to complex diseases. 

“This is a vital shift for the field,” said Wendell Lim, Ph.D., the Byers Distinguished Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, who directs the UCSF Cell Design Institute and led the study. “Only by having that power of prediction can we get to a place where we can rapidly design new cellular therapies that carry out the desired activities.” 

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This Personalized Crispr Therapy Is Designed to Attack Tumors

In a small study, researchers modified patients’ immune cells to target their particular cancer—but it only worked for a third of volunteers.

IN A NEW step for Crispr, scientists have used the gene-editing tool to make personalized modifications to cancer patients’ immune cells to supercharge them against their tumors. In a small study published today in the journal Nature, a US team showed that the approach was feasible and safe, but was successful only in a handful of patients.

Cancer arises when cells acquire genetic mutations and divide uncontrollably. Every cancer is driven by a unique set of mutations, and each person has immune cells with receptors that can recognize these mutations and differentiate cancer cells from normal ones. But patients don’t often have enough immune cells with these receptors in order to mount an effective response against their cancer. In this Phase 1 trial, researchers identified each patient’s receptors, inserted them into immune cells lacking them, and grew more of these modified cells. Then, the bolstered immune cells were unleashed into each patient’s bloodstream to attack their tumor.

“What we’re trying to do is really harness every patient’s tumor-specific mutations,” says Stefanie Mandl, chief scientific officer at Pact Pharma and an author on the study. The company worked with experts from the University of California, Los Angeles, the California Institute of Technology, and the nonprofit Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle to design the personalized therapies.

The researchers began by separating T cells from the blood of 16 patients with solid tumors, including colon, breast, or lung cancer. (T cells are the immune system component with these receptors.) For each patient, they identified dozens of receptors capable of binding to cancer cells taken from their own tumors. The team chose up to three receptors for each patient, and using Crispr, added the genes for these receptors to the person’s T cells in the lab.

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Scientists Are Using the “Dark Matter” of the Human Genome To Help Cure Cancer

The researchers are planning to continue their research and develop a drug that can treat patients.

Scientists have identified new cancer treatment targets.

In Switzerland, cancer is the second-leading cause of death. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the cancer form that kills the most people and is still mostly incurable. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of patients survive the metastatic stage for a long time, and even recently approved therapies can only prolong patients’ lives by a few months. As a result, researchers are looking for innovative cancer treatments. Researchers from the University of Bern and the Insel Hospital identified new targets for drug development for this cancer type in a recent study published in the journal Cell Genomics.

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Researchers are testing tiny magnetic robots that hunt and destroy cancer

By Joshua Hawkins

Finding new ways to fight cancer has been a priority for many researchers in the past decade, especially as the number of deaths associated with different types of cancer continues to grow. Now, researchers have begun testing a type of cancer-killing robot, which could make it easier to hunt down and kill cancer cells in human patients.

One of the biggest concerns surrounding some types of cancer is the locations where cancerous tumors can form. Some of these locations can be too difficult to get to using surgery and thus require risky and sometimes even deadly treatments like chemotherapy to treat. But, with a new set of magnetic cancer-killing robots, we could finally have a new directed way to fight back against cancer.

The robots in question aren’t exactly robots as you might think of them, though. Instead, their bionic bacteria is steered using a magnetic field. This allows the researchers to deliver cancer-killing compounds (enterotoxins) directly to the tumors. The researchers published a paper on the cancer-killing robots in the journal Science Robotics.

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Revolutionary new cancer treatment uses light to kill tumors

By Joshua Hawkins

Researchers have managed to create a cancer-killing patch that turns light into heat and “cooks” cancer cells until they die. The patch, which researchers first detailed in a paper published in Advanced Functional Materials, can heat up melanoma cells and kill them. It’s a treatment that kills the cancerous cells but leaves the other cells around it unharmed.

Finding new ways to treat cancer effectively has been at the top of scientists’ and medical professionals’ goals for the past decade. And we’ve come up with some very innovative ways to treat cancer. From this cancer-killing patch to cancer-killing viruses, and even a radioactive gel that can kill cancerous cells all offer great ways to fight these deadly diseases.

The treatment relies heavily on a procedure called surgical resection. This is a common treatment for skin melanoma, but it can also lead to postoperative recurrence. That then calls for even more surgery, as well as possibly chemotherapy. With a cancer-killing patch, though, the doctors could focus the treatment more directly on the cancerous cells.

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Innovative Biotechnology Fuses Targeted and Immune Therapies To Kill Treatment-Resistant Cancer Cells

Mutated KRAS-driven lung cancer cells (purple) in a genetically engineered mouse model of lung cancer.

New biotechnology combines targeted and immune therapies to kill treatment-resistant cancer cells.

Targeted therapies specifically attach to and inhibit cancer-causing proteins, but cancer cells can swiftly evolve to counter their action. Immunotherapies, a second drug class, harnesses the immune system to attack cancer cells. However, these agents often cannot “see” the disease-causing changes happening inside cancer cells, which appear normal from the outside.

Now, a new study describes a strategy to overcome these limitations based on several insights. The research was led by scientists from the Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health.

First, the investigation team recognized that certain targeted drugs called “covalent inhibitors” form stable attachments with the disease-related proteins they target inside cancer cells. They also knew that once inside cells, proteins are naturally broken down and presented as small pieces (peptides) on cell surfaces by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules. Once bound to MHC, peptides are recognized as foreign by the immune “surveillance” system if they are sufficiently different from the body’s naturally occurring proteins.

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Wearable Sensor Promises More Efficient Early Cancer Drug Development

Posted on September 27th, 2022 by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Wearable electronic sensors hold tremendous promise for improving human health and wellness. That promise already runs the gamut from real-time monitoring of blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms to measuring alcohol consumption and even administering vaccines.

Now a new study published in the journal Science Advances [1] demonstrates the promise of wearables also extends to the laboratory. A team of engineers has developed a flexible, adhesive strip that, at first glance, looks like a Band-Aid. But this “bandage” actually contains an ultra-sensitive, battery-operated sensor that’s activated when placed on the skin of mouse models used to study possible new cancer drugs. 

This sensor is so sensitive that it can detect, in real time, changes in the size of a tumor down to one-hundredth of a millimeter. That’s about the thickness of the plastic cling wrap you likely have in your kitchen! The device beams those measures to a smartphone app, capturing changes in tumor growth minute by minute over time.

The goal is to determine much sooner—and with greater automation and precision—which potential drug candidates undergoing early testing in the lab best inhibit tumor growth and, consequently, should be studied further. In their studies in mouse models of cancer, researchers found the new sensor could detect differences between tumors treated with an active drug and those treated with a placebo within five hours. Those quick results also were validated using more traditional methods to confirm their accuracy.

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Self-assembling molecules suffocate cancer cells within hours

By Sophia Koch

By deploying a newly developed drug against a major energy source of cancer cells, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research have developed a new way to eliminate them in mere hours. The technology relies on self-assembling molecules that take a potent form in the cellular environment, and in doing so effectively starve cancer cells of the oxygen they need to grow.

The technology at the heart of this research targets one of the key metabolic functions of cells in all living things called ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. This molecule is the primary energy carrier in cells, capturing chemical energy from the breakdown of food molecules and distributing it to power other cellular processes.

Among those cellular processes is the proliferation of cancer cells, and because of this we have seen ATP implicated in previous anticancer successes. The authors of the new study sought to cut off the supply of ATP, which is produced as mitochondria absorb oxygen and turn it into molecules.

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An Anti-cancer Drug in Short Supply Can Now be Made by Microbes

Thanks to a leap forward in synthetic biology, the plant-derived chemotherapy vinblastine has a new source

Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as brewer’s yeast, is seen under a microscope. This species is used around the world to make food and beverages. Easily cultured with a well-known genome, the species has also become a favorite of synthetic biologists for making natural products that are difficult to obtain from their native sources. 

Newswise — The supply of a plant-derived anti-cancer drug can finally meet global demand after a team of scientists from Denmark and the U.S. engineered yeast to produce the precursor molecules, which could previously only be obtained in trace concentrations in the native plant. A study describing the breakthrough was published today in Nature. 

“The yeast platform we developed will allow environmentally friendly and affordable production of vinblastine and the more than 3,000 other molecules that are in this family of natural products,” said project co-leader Jay Keasling, a senior faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and scientific director at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability (DTU Biosustain). “In addition to vinblastine, this platform will enable production of anti-addiction and anti-malarial therapies as well as treatments for many other diseases.” Keasling is a biochemical engineer who helped launch the now-booming field of synthetic biology when his team successfully transferred the genetic pathway to produce an antimalarial drug, artemisinin, from an herb called sweet wormwood to the laboratory workhorse microbe, E. coli. He is also a professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at UC Berkeley. 

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Therapeutic viruses help turbocharge the immune system against cancer

The illustration shows a cancer cell (center) surrounded by immune T-cells augmented with an oncolytic (cancer-fighting) virus. A new study describes how a combination of immunotherapy and virotherapy, using myxoma virus, provides new hope for patients with treatment resistant cancers.

By Richard Harth

The immune system has evolved to safeguard the body from a wildly diverse range of potential threats. Among these are bacterial diseases, including plague, cholera, diphtheria and Lyme disease, and viral contagions such as influenza, Ebola virus and SARS CoV-2.

Despite the impressive power of the immune system’s complex defense network, one type of threat is especially challenging to combat. This arises when the body’s own native cells turn rogue, leading to the phenomenon of cancer. Although the immune system often engages to try to rid the body of malignant cells, its efforts are frequently thwarted as the disease progresses unchecked.The illustration shows a cancer cell (center) surrounded by immune T-cells augmented with an oncolytic (cancer-fighting) virus. A new study describes how a combination of immunotherapy and virotherapy, using myxoma virus, provides new hope for patients with treatment resistant cancers. 

In new research appearing in the journal Cancer Cell, corresponding authors Grant McFadden, Masmudur Rahman and their colleagues propose a new line of attack that shows promise for treatment-resistant cancers.

The approach involves a combination of two methods that have each shown considerable success against some cancers. The study describes how oncolytic virotherapy, a technique using cancer-fighting viruses, can act in concert with existing immunotherapy techniques, boosting the immune capacity to effectively target and destroy cancer cells. 

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Imperial startup GlioQuell has the power to shut down cancer cells

Mitochondria membranes could unlock new cancer treatments

By Ian Mundell

A new company using research from the Department of Brain Sciences will look for drugs to treat brain cancers and diseases of old age.

Cancer cells grow at an extraordinary rate inside the body. To do this, they need energy, which is provided by mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell. Dr Kambiz Alavian in the Department of Brain Sciences has been looking for ways to turn off cancer cells’ power supply. He has now co-founded a company, GlioQuell, to accelerate the development of a new kind of cancer treatment.

“We think we have a new way of looking at the mitochondria of cancer cells, and of treating cancer, based on reducing the efficiency of these beasts inside the cells,” he says

All cells in the human body contain mitochondria, structures that produce energy and biomolecules for whatever activity the cells need to carry out. Looking closely at the cells involved in glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive and deadliest forms of cancer, revealed that their mitochondria are extraordinarily efficient.

“There is almost no cell that I have seen that is as efficient as these particular cells, in terms of utilising their resources for growth,” says Dr Alavian. “They resemble mini-embryos, growing very quickly inside the brain.”

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Proton beam therapy for bone cancer spares surrounding tissue

By Rhoda Madson,  Mayo Clinic

July is Sarcoma Awareness Month, bringing attention to a group of cancers that begin in the bones or soft tissues of the body. There are more than 70 types of sarcoma, including bone cancer. Treatments for bone cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or proton beam therapy that targets the cancer.

Proton beam therapy is a type of radiation therapy that is more precise than traditional X-ray treatment that delivers radiation to everything in its path. Proton beam therapy uses charged particles in an atom—protons—that release their energy within the tumor. Because proton beams can be much more finely controlled, specialists can use proton beam therapy to safely deliver higher doses of radiation to tumors. This is especially important for bone cancers.

“Bone tumors need much higher doses of radiation than a sarcoma that arises purely in the muscle, which we call a soft tissue sarcoma,” says Safia Ahmed, M.D., a radiation oncologist at Mayo Clinic. “These high doses of radiation often exceed what the normal tissues around the area can tolerate. Proton therapy allows us to give this high dose of radiation while protecting the normal tissues.”

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