Dendritic cell therapy comes to us as a benefit of modern science and over a century of cancer research, there are now safer and more effective methods to fight cancer. The most prominent is immunotherapy which uses the patient’s own cells to trigger the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. This can be either with drugs, or using the patient’s own cells as with dendritic cell therapy.
This is not ‘new’. Dendritic cells were first observed 153 years ago and then they were correctly identified 48 years ago, becoming the subject of 2 Nobel Prizes in the last decade. Before we find out how and why dendritic cell therapy is available now, let’s take a brief look at how we got here and how a simple discovery became a proven way to treat cancer.
In 1868 Paul Langerhans was the first to describe these cells when he observed them in skin cells using a microscope. He called them ‘Langerhans cells’ and mistakenly described them as nerve cells, because they looked similar. Today he is credited with bringing scientific attention to this clearly hardworking cell population which continued to be studied until it bore fruit a hundred years later.
In 1973 Ralph Steinman and Zanvil Cohn, both cell biologists and immunologists, made a revolutionary discovery using an electron microscope. They found how these ‘Langerhans’ cells stimulate the primary T and B cell antitumor immune responses and how they malfunction and decline when tumors become malignant. They had discovered and correctly identified the body’s own anti-cancer defence system. Stienman named them dendritic cells because their formation looked like a tree.
Due to the research funds created by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and the general high level of funding for cancer research, dendritic cells therapy has been researched extensively around the world for decades. The scientific understanding of dendritic cells has benefited from an unparalleled revolution in medical technology.
The first extensive clinical trial of dendritic cell vaccinations was published in 1995, and included 98 separate studies describing more than 1,000 vaccines. Since then, dendritic cell therapy has become the subject of around 7,000 clinical trials and many more papers have been published and peer-reviewed or presented at major conferences. Hundreds of thousands of vaccines later, studies consistently show good results using dendritic cell therapy in cancers from breast to colon, liver, kidney, lung, prostate and cancers of the blood, making dendritic cell therapy the leading alternative to ‘conventional’ cancer treatment.
Following 2 decades of trials, the first dendritic cell-based therapeutic cancer vaccine was approved by the FDA in 2010. In the last decade 5 eminent scientists have shared 2 nobel prizes for their achievements in establishing the principles of dendritic cell therapy.
The 2011 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Ralph Steinman “for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity.” He shared the prize with 2 other pioneers in this field, Bruce Beutler, an immunologist and geneticist and Jules A. Hoffmann, a biologist “for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity”.
The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James Alison, an immunologist and Tasuku Honjo, a physician-scientist, for “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation”. The Nobel citation included “By stimulating the ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells, this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy”.
Dendritic cell therapy is a decade past the experimental stage and is now a mainstream cancer treatment. The literature on this vast and exciting subject is growing exponentially, a Google search for ‘dendritic cell therapy’ will produce 45 million results. Today dendritic cell therapy is a way to treat cancer, non-invasive, by using the body’s own natural repair system. Dendritic cell therapy is available now to repair the immune system so that it can fight the cancer cells.