A study on lung cancer patients found that activating the immune system can prompt tumours into spreading friendly T-cells around the body, significantly reducing the chance of cancer returning after surgery.
Scientists have hailed the new approach, called “cancer interception”, a “game-changer” potentially capable of stopping the disease in its tracks.
Teams are now setting out to trial the method on patients with blood, colon and ovarian cancers in what could be the start of a fundamental shift in treatment of the disease.
Oncologists at Johns Hopkins University and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center administered the immunotherapy drug nivolumab over several weeks to 21 patients with non-small-cell lung cancer prior to surgery.
They found the strategy was not only safe, but that 45 per cent of the patients responded so well there was little evidence of the cancer remaining upon follow-up examinations.
Overall, recurrence-free survival at 18 months was 73 per cent.
This is compared to a roughly 50 per cent current clinical average.
The team believe the key to the success are the T cells circulating through the patients’ bodies after surgery which attack errant tumour cells and prevent new metastases.
They said the nivolumab effectively converted the lung tumours into an “auto-vaccine”, pumping the cancer-killing cells around the body.
"That T-cells, activated by immunotherapy prior to surgery, can intercept rogue tumor cells throughout the body after the patient's operation and prevent the cancer from recurring may be a game-changer,” said Dr Sung Poblete, President of Stand Up To Cancer, which funded the research.
"This notion of 'cancer interception' has the potential to stop cancer in its tracks.”
“We are hopeful that this breakthrough, and the follow-up clinical studies already underway, will translate into a new standard of care."
Traditionally, chemotherapy or chemoradiotherapy has been given to lung cancer patients to shrink a large, non-metastasized tumor.
Immunotherapeutic agents have then been administered after surgery, but with limited results.
The Study is being presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Alison Cook, Director of Policy for the British Lung Foundation, said: “This research is so full of hope, for all of those people who are going to face lung cancer. People can feel encouraged to come forward if they have worrying symptoms knowing that their chances of being cured are going to be significantly better with this treatment alongside surgery.
"Early diagnosis is so vital in the fight against lung cancer, and often people with symptoms delay seeing a doctor due to fear of invasive, painful treatments that might do little in the end to improve their chances. Treatment tomorrow is going to look very different from what’s on offer today - more lives will be saved.”