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Could this be a sniper cancer killer?

Nothing attracts media attention quite like a potential cure for cancer. Researchers from Cardiff University, UK, recently published this paper detailing one possible method to beat cancer with far-reaching, all-purpose abilities. While it is currently just a laboratory experiment, the method they have outlined certainly has merit.

Traditional immune therapy has its drawbacks

Our immune system is adept at fighting infection, and we have many types of white blood cells to help us. Recently some advanced cancer treatments involved stimulating one of the white blood cell types; the T cells of the immune system, to target cancer cells. The T cells will then direct other immune cells to kill the cancer, just like an infection.

These treatments are highly effective but can be prohibitively expensive and tend to focus on very specific cancer types and sub-types. There are many positive reports for some skin and stomach cancers, but mostly an immune response is focused on blood cancers like leukaemia or lymphoma. Solid tumours, like breast, liver and lung cancers are far harder to treat this way, and progress is slow. To work, the immune system also must have an identifiable target which is often difficult to find.

Using T cells to hunt and kill cancer

The method that Prof Andrew Sewell's team discovered is also based on the immune system, but it has potential for much broader reach. All cells need nutrients to survive, and they do this by metabolising energy sources into much more manageable forms. When Vitamin B2 is used in this conversion process, cells flag a certain protein called MR1 on their surface. This is a normal process, but MR1 seems to be highly sensitive to any distortions or abnormalities in the cell, especially those caused by cancer.

What the research shows is that certain T cells have a receptor that will lock on to abnormal MR1 and cause the cell to be destroyed. Since all cells have MR1 on their surface, and only cancerous cells would display abnormal MR1, the hope is that large quantities of stimulated T-cells would hunt out cancer throughout the body. By only destroying cancerous cells, this treatment would leave healthy cells untouched.

The aim would be to have one standard treatment for all cancers that could be rapidly administered, and effective within days or weeks. This treatment should have few, if any, side effects, as only already cancerous cells would be targeted. It also appears to be quite easily scalable and should not be too expensive or hard to administer. It could even be given as a preventative measure; patients with symptoms could be treated on the off chance that they have cancer, just as we might take antibiotics after surgery – just in case.

What could this mean for insurers?

There is clear interest from all sides into this research, but it is still experimental. It is hardly a "done deal". More lab experiments will be needed, and animal studies are likely planned. If everything looks promising, human trials will be scheduled.

Insurers should also be taking note, and following developments closely. If this treatment is successful and becomes mainstream, we may see improved mortality and fewer or shorter duration disability claims. Critical illness products may require modification to reflect the improvement in treatment and recovery of cancers.

In all, this is an exciting development for people and for the insurers who help protect them. This has the potential to represent a fundamental industry shift for Life & Health insurance. Swiss Re and our team of underwriting and medical experts will continue to follow this and other leading-edge research. We want to help lead the conversation in a world where cancer is no longer a global killer.

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