Researchers believe that a new method of genetically engineering immune cells could lead to improved treatment of patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). Their study, published in Cancer Immunology Research (2015; doi:10.1158/2326-6066.CIR-14-0203-T), explains how the team was able to create T cells that use the presence of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) to combat NPC.

NPC develops in the upper part of the throat known as the nasopharynx, which connects the back of the nose to the back of the mouth.

This particular cancer is unusually common throughout Southeast Asia, particularly in Southern China, where it is the third most common cancer in males. In this region, NPC accounts for 18% of all cancers. Though early stage disease responds well to treatment, the more advanced cases have relatively low survival rates. As a result, there is a clear need for improved therapies for this cancer.

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Research to understand why NPC is more prevalent in Southeast Asia than other regions is ongoing. It is believed that it could stem from a mixture of environmental and genetic factors.

Epstein-Barr virus is consistently detected in malignant cells of patients with NPC, and scientists believe, plays a role in the development of the tumors. The virus is ubiquitous in the human population where it usually persists as a life-long infection under the control of our immune cells.

Because EBV appears to be so closely linked with development of NPC, the research team was hopeful that the virus could be used as a gateway for an immune cell-based therapy.

“There has been remarkable success in genetically engineering a patient’s immune cells to treat tumors in recent trials for leukemia. We wanted to take a similar approach to other cancers, namely NPC,” said Steve Lee, PhD, from the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Centre at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

Current approaches for generating immune cells for NPC treatment are both time-consuming and unreliable. The team thinks that this method of producing large numbers of specific immune cells within just a few days will provide more efficient treatments for patients.

Lee added, “This research suggests that we might be able to make a real difference [for patients with NPC]. The next step is to explore how we can test what we’ve found in the lab and develop a clinical trial.”

There is further hope that the genetically engineered cells could prove useful in the treatment of other tumours that possess similar molecules. Target cells with the Epstein Barr virus protein LMP2, and the ’tissue type’ molecule HLA11 could also be treated. HLA11 is carried by more than half of the population of Southern China.