A potential revolution in cancer treatment that involves harnessing the body's own immune defences to eliminate tumours has been voted breakthrough of the year by the Washington-based journal Science.

The experts behind the vote said there was a sense of a "paradigm shift" in cancer treatment as a result of the latest research into using the body's own immune defences - antibodies and T-cells - to seek out and destroy tumour cells wherever they appear.

Cancer immunotherapy marks a turning point in cancer because it is so different to conventional forms of tumour therapy and this year saw encouraging results from some of the first clinical trials of drug treatments based on the revolutionary approach, said Science.

"Immunotherapy marks an entirely different way of treating cancer by targeting the immune system, not the tumour itself. Oncologists, a grounded-in-reality bunch, say a corner has been turned and we won't be going back."


One approach to immunotherapy involves making monoclonal antibodies, such as a drug called ipilimubab which binds to T-cells, causing them to proliferate and destroy cancers.

Bristol Myers Squibb, which manufactures the drug, said this year that out of 1880 patients with advanced melanoma cancer, 22 per cent were still alive after three years - a significant improvement on previous treatments.

Other companies are working on ways of genetically modifying a patient's T-cells to target tumour cells. Early tests have shown it to be effective against leukaemia.

"This year there was no mistaking the immense promise of cancer immunotherapy," said Tim Appenzeller of Science. "So far this strategy of harnessing the immune system to attack tumours works only for some cancers ... so it's important not to overstate the immediate benefits."

- Independent