A single drug can shrink or cure human breast, ovary, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate tumors that have been transplanted into mice, researchers have found. The treatment, an antibody that blocks a "do not eat" signal normally displayed on tumor cells, coaxes the immune system to destroy the cancer cells.I want to be optimistic, but I am not. Over the years so many drugs have shown this kind of promise in limited animal tests, only to fail at treating actual cancer in humans. These were human tumors transplanted into mice, so I suppose that a mouse's immune system would be much more ready to attack them than its own tumors. Will just turning off CD47 get our own immune systems to attack out-of-control pieces of ourselves? And will we be as good as mice at surviving the effects of turning off CD47 and exposing our own red blood cells to destruction?
A decade ago, biologist Irving Weissman of the Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California, discovered that leukemia cells produce higher levels of a protein called CD47 than do healthy cells. CD47, he and other scientists found, is also displayed on healthy blood cells; it's a marker that blocks the immune system from destroying them as they circulate. Cancers take advantage of this flag to trick the immune system into ignoring them. In the past few years, Weissman's lab showed that blocking CD47 with an antibody cured some cases of lymphomas and leukemias in mice by stimulating the immune system to recognize the cancer cells as invaders. Now, he and colleagues have shown that the CD47-blocking antibody may have a far wider impact than just blood cancers.
"What we've shown is that CD47 isn't just important on leukemias and lymphomas," says Weissman. "It's on every single human primary tumor that we tested." Moreover, Weissman's lab found that cancer cells always had higher levels of CD47 than did healthy cells. How much CD47 a tumor made could predict the survival odds of a patient.
And then again, maybe it will really work.