Cancer patient receiving chemotherapy


GENEVA, Switzerland — Cancer treatments can often cause severe and even traumatizing side-effects for patients, such as hair loss. Now, researchers in Switzerland say a treatment without stressful side-effects could be on the horizon.

One of the most worrying aspects of starting any kind of cancer treatment is knowing that it may cause hair follicles to die as the treatment attacks both healthy and cancerous cells. Around two-thirds of people undergoing chemotherapy will experience drug-induced hair loss, which is usually temporary and completely reversible when therapy ends.

Nearly half of all female cancer patients consider hair loss to be the most traumatic part of cancer treatment. Eight percent say they would decline treatment out of fear of going bald.

Avoiding harm to normal cells

A team from the University of Geneva has successfully established the difference between reactions that attack healthy tissue, like hair follicles, and those targeting the tumor cells. While the immune mechanisms are similar, the cells involved are different.

Researchers hope targeting these cells that provide the immune response in the body could one day lead to better targeted, more effective, and less harmful treatments for cancer patients — where they can have immunotherapy without side-effects.

Study authors say this treatment could even boost a patient’s immune system to the point where patients do not have cancer again. Unlike chemotherapy, which acts directly on tumors, immunotherapy treats patients by acting on their immune system. This teaches the body how to destroy cancer cells.

Taking the toxic response out of cancer treatments

In a toxic immunotherapy response, microphage and neutrophil immune cells activate to attack healthy tissue that is not part of killing cancer cells. Another cell type, dendritic cells, are very rare but also help in eliminating cancer cells. Researchers discovered that, by studying the immune reactions of mice, they could identify a loophole they could exploit to avoid activating the toxic responses.

“When the immune system is activated so intensively, the resulting inflammatory reaction can have harmful effects and sometimes cause significant damage to healthy tissue,” says Dr. Mikaël Pittet in a university release.

“Therefore, we wanted to know if there are differences between a desired immune response, which aims to eliminate cancer, and an unwanted response, which can affect healthy tissue. The identification of distinctive elements between these two immune reactions would indeed allow the development of new, more effective and less toxic therapeutic approaches.”

Immunotherapies can trigger the production of specialized proteins that alert the immune system and trigger an inflammatory response,” Pittet adds. “In a tumor, these proteins are welcome because they allow the immune system to destroy cancerous cells. In healthy tissue, however, the presence of these same proteins can lead to the destruction of healthy cells.”

“The fact that these inflammatory proteins are produced by such different cells in tumors and healthy tissue is therefore an interesting finding,” the researcher concludes. “Furthermore, inhibiting neutrophils could be a more effective way to fight cancer: in addition to triggering a toxic response, some of these cells also promote tumor growth. Thus, by managing to control them, we could have a double beneficial effect: overcome the toxicity in healthy tissues, and limit the growth of cancerous cells.”

The team published their work in the journal Science Immunology.

SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.

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