Behind the ground-breaking discovery that could change the way we fight breast cancer

This image is part of new research illustrating how our amazing immune system tackles cancer. B cells, like their first cousin T cells, are part of the immune system, helping the body to fight infections as well as cancer.

They produce proteins called antibodies – in red here – which stick to harmful substances like viruses and cancer, and recruit other parts of the immune system to destroy them. When a receptor on the cell identifies a cancer cell and binds to it, the B cell undergoes changes to become even more effective at targeting cancer cells. That’s impressive.

These super B cells not only target tumours – they seek out cancer that’s spread to different parts of the body. Now researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have developed a new tool to identify these anti-cancer cells which could lead to improved, personalised and therefore better immunotherapies.

The scientists took biopsies from patients with breast cancer, and using a special technique identified genetic variations in the B cells. Researchers discovered some unique B cells, which had altered their genes after identifying and targeting cancer cells, were present at multiple sites in the body to which the cancer had spread. This means that, after recognising cancer in one area of the body, B cells migrate to hunt down cancer at different sites around the body.

Similarly, they found B cells that were present throughout patients’ treatment were those which had recognised cancer and had changed their genetic sequence, diversifying themselves to become more effective at identifying cancer. The researchers then used this information to develop a tool to predict which B cells were most likely to successfully detect and target cancer cells.

They believe that, using their predictive tool, it’ll be possible to find a patient’s most successful anti-cancer B cells and artificially develop the antibodies these B cells would naturally create. This could be given as a personalised immunotherapy treatment – supercharging the patient’s immune system.

Dr Stephen John Sammut, first author from The Institute of Cancer Research, London says: “The computational tool we have developed will allow us to zoom in and identify the B cells that have recognised cancer cells, as well as antibodies they are producing.

“This will allow us to develop anti-cancer antibody treatments similar to the ones the B cells produce, which can then be given as a personalised treatment to boost the immune system’s response against breast cancer that has spread.”

Professor Kristian Helin, who is Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research, believes that personalised cancer immunotherapies could work better in far more people than most existing immunotherapies.