An image of tapeworm cancer cells from the biopsy of a man's tumour, with the malignant cells pictured here CDC

Researchers have devised a new treatment for cancer that involves engineering or reprogramming cells to recognise cancer cells in the body and destroy them upon contact. This method, called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, is being touted as a potential cure for cancer, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also given an approval for its research.

This therapy has created a lot of buzz because it can be used on just about any type of cancer cell that the modified cells come into contact with.

The research was first published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology in which a team of scientists said that they might have a solution to one of the biggest stumbling blocks that researchers come across while engineering cells – what if the engineered cells get too active and lead to a hyperactive immune system? The scenario could result in anything from a simple fever to even death, reported Futurism.

And, that is why the team decided to go with non-immune cells instead of immune cells, infusing cancer-killing (CAR) T-cell therapy into non-immune cells. These newly-developed synthetic T-cells were engineered from two different human cells – one derived from embryonic kidney cells (HEK-293T cells) and the other from mesenchymal stem cells, with both of them given cancer-detecting abilities.

When they come into contact with a cancer cell, a chain reaction is triggered that leads to the release of a drug-activating enzyme which is then transported to the cancer cell. This enzyme then transforms into its active form, destroying the cancer.

"I liken this to an explosion, which could eventually kill the synthetic T-cell, along with a couple of other cells around, mostly cancer cells," one of the researchers, Martin Fussenegger from ETH Zurich, told The Scientist.

"So whenever the synthetic [T-cell] has done its job, it triggers a targeted killing of the cell it recognises, plus an explosion taking out all the other cells in the immediate surroundings. This [is] a very targeted but localised effect," he added.

Fussenegger and his team are set to conduct tests on rats after which the study will proceed to pre-clinical and clinical trials.

Even though the treatment, in its current form, is a long way from therapeutic application, the researchers believe that they have "opened up a new front in the battle against cancer".