Wait, have British Scientists accidentally discovered a cure for cancer?

With all the talk of centenaries recently, it might be hard to imagine that this decade will feature a centenary much more important than the war against the Black and Tans, or the civil war, though it will be much less commemorated. In 1926, the flu – yes, the flu – killed 100,000 people in the United States alone. Two years later, in his laboratory in London, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the world’s fist natural antibiotic. And he did it entirely by accident:

Often described as a careless lab technician, Fleming returned from a two-week vacation to find that a mould had developed on an accidentally contaminated staphylococcus culture plate. Upon examination of the mould, he noticed that the culture prevented the growth of staphylococci.

An article published by Fleming in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1929 reads, “The staphylococcus colonies became transparent and were obviously undergoing lysis … the broth in which the mould had been grown at room temperature for one to two weeks had acquired marked inhibitory, bactericidal and bacteriolytic properties to many of the more common pathogenic bacteria.”

Fleming described the colony as a “fluffy white mass which rapidly increases in size and after a few days sporulates” and changes colour from dark green to black to bright yellow.

Even in the early experimentation stages, penicillin had no effect against gram-negative organisms but was effective against gram-positive bacteria.

Published reports credit Fleming as saying: “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”

That discovery revolutionised medicine and can probably be credited with the ever expanding natural lifespan of people throughout the last century. The things that used to kill us now, mainly, do not kill us any longer. People still die from the flu, true enough, but at vastly lower rates than before, and usually at a more advanced age.

Is it possible that we’ve just had a second accident, one just as consequential?

“A new type of immune cell which kills most cancers has been discovered by accident by British scientists, in a finding which could herald a major breakthrough in treatment.

Researchers at Cardiff University were analysing blood from a bank in Wales, looking for immune cells that could fight bacteria, when they found an entirely new type of T-cell.

That new immune cell carries a never-before-seen receptor which acts like a grappling hook, latching on to most human cancers, while ignoring healthy cells.

In laboratory studies, immune cells equipped with the new receptor were shown to kill lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer.

Professor Andrew Sewell, lead author on the study and an expert in T-cells from Cardiff University’s School of Medicine, said it was “highly unusual” to find a cell that had broad cancer-fighting therapies, and raised the prospect of a universal therapy.

“This was a serendipitous finding, nobody knew this cell existed,” Prof Sewell told The Telegraph.

“Our finding raises the prospect of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ cancer treatment, a single type of T-cell that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population. Previously nobody believed this could be possible.”

Asked if it meant that someone in Wales was walking around completely immune to cancer, Prof Sewell said: “Possibly. This immune cell could be quite rare, or it could be that lots of people have this receptor but for some reason it is not activated. We just don’t know yet.””

The part in bold is the really interesting bit. There are, obviously, lots of people who never get cancer. What if that’s because… they’re naturally immune? These findings suggest that’s a very strong possibility, but it’s almost impossible to establish whether it’s the truth without doing something very unethical, like deliberately exposing people to things that cause cancer and trying to identify those people who do not get it. You could probably only establish something like that with a very expensive, long term study of people who live somewhere like Chernobyl, where most of the population were exposed to very high radiation in our lifetimes. And even then, it’s probably too late.

Nonetheless, the initial tests here seem to be very positive, even without knowing exactly where they come from, or what they do, or how common they are. The next step will be seeing how those cells can be transplanted into, and activated within, patients who have cancer. The fact that they’re talking about human trials by the end of next year, according to the Telegraph, is very encouraging.

Cancer is the single largest cause of death in Ireland – 30.7% of those who die have the disease in some form or other. An effective cure would be the single biggest advance in medicine in a century.

Of course, the downside is that we all die eventually, and something’s going to kill us. If it’s not cancer, it’ll be something else. But don’t let that take away from what is, for today at least, a very good news story.



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