Cancer immunotherapy is the breakthrough of 2013

Cancer immunotherapy, a groundbreaking treatment that stimulates the patient’s own immune system to reject cancer, is the breakthrough of the year, according to the editors of the leading journal Science, who recently published their list of Top 10 scientific breakthroughs for 2013.

As well as cancer immunotherapy, the list includes breakthroughs in gene-editing, vaccine design, and solar cell technologies.

Cancer immunotherapy

The main reason cancer immunotherapy was chosen, was more because of the promise it holds, rather than any specific achievement in 2013.

Much has happened since the discovery in the 1980s by French researchers of the CTLA-4 receptor on immune system T cells, which later studies showed when blocked, instigates an immune assault on tumors.

Japanese researchers have also found another brake on T cells, called PD-1, and clinical trials started in 2006 are showing some positive early results. There is also a lot of excitement about another new area called chimeric antigen therapy, or CAR therapy, which involves genetically modifying T cells to actively target tumors.

Progress has been patchy, and sometimes more like three steps forward, two steps back, but the journal editors believe the field turned a corner in 2013. Also, pharmaceutical companies that wanted nothing to do with it at first are now investing heavily, they note.

Tim Appenzeller, the journal’s chief news editor, says:

“This year there was no mistaking the immense promise of cancer immunotherapy. So far, this strategy of harnessing the immune system to attack tumors works only for some cancers and a few patients, so it’s important not to overstate the immediate benefits. But many cancer specialists are convinced that they are seeing the birth of an important new paradigm for cancer treatment.”

The other 9 of Science‘s Top 10 for 2013 are:

  • Gene editing technology CRISPR – interest in the technology exploded this year with more than a dozen research groups reporting using it to edit genomes in plant, animal and human cells. A new biotech, Editas Medicine, was launched recently with an initial US$43 million venture capital investment, to exploit CRISPR to fight disease. CRISPR is short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and was first discovered in bacteria.
  • Perovskite-based solar cells – made from a new generation of semiconductor materials that are cheaper and easier to produce than traditional silicon cells, these attracted a lot of attention in the last 12 months. They are not yet as efficient as commercial solar cells, but they are improving very quickly, say the Science editors.
  • Vaccine design using structural biology – for the first time this year, researchers used the structure of an antibody to design the main ingredient of a vaccine. In this case to make a vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus, which hospitalizes millions of children every year.
  • CLARITY imaging technique – in 2013 this revolutionized the way researchers could view the brain. The technique, developed at Stanford University School of Medicine, effectively makes brain tissue transparent so you can clearly see neurons and other brain cells.
  • Mini-organs grown in lab – research took a huge leap forward this year when human-like ‘organoids’ including liver buds, mini-kidneys, and even tiny brains were grown successfully in the lab. These mini-organs could be a better way to model human diseases than animals, say the Science editors.
  • Cosmic rays liked to supernova remnants – earlier this year, 100 years after the discovery of cosmic rays, NASA’s Fermi gamma-ray space telescope collected strong evidence that these high-energy charged particles (mostly protons) interacting in the Earth’s atmosphere, are accelerated to high energies by debris clouds left by supernovae, or exploding stars.
  • Stem cells from cloned human embryos – after discovering that caffeine can stabilize key molecules in delicate, human egg cells, this year saw researchers able to derive stem cells from cloned human embryos, rekindling the great hope that cloning techniques will one day create perfectly matched tissues for curing diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s.
  • The purpose of sleep – restoration and repair is confirmed as one of the primary purposes of sleep, when this year scientists working with mice discovered that the brain cleans itself during sleep. Channels between brain cells expand, allowing more cerebrospinal fluid to flow through much more efficiently, during sleep.
  • Our microbial tenants hold the key to our health – this year saw an outpouring of studies about the trillions of bacteria that live inside us, and how much our health relies on them. A key message from this research is that ‘personalized medicine,’ or treatments tailored to individual patients, will have to take account of the microbiome if it is to be effective.