An alarm signal from the immune system offers an “invaluable” early warning of returning cancer, research has shown.
Scientists hope the discovery will make it possible to catch recurring cancers before they take hold, increasing the survival chances of patients.
The same team found that rousing sleeping cancers could weaken them and ultimately lead to their destruction by the body’s own defences.
Often cancers are successfully treated only to return years later. Breast cancer is especially prone to making an unwelcome comeback - nearly a quarter of women with the disease will experience it a second time within 10 years.
Knowing when a cancer is about to recur would give doctors a valuable head start, allowing them to attack a tumour before it begins to spread.
The main cause of cancer recurrence is small groups of tumour cells that hide away lying dormant, only to re-awaken once they have learned to evade the immune system.
In a study of mice, researchers looked for early signs of an immune response triggered by a dormant cancer waking up. They found that detecting the signal made it possible to predict accurately when a cancer was about to return.
Lead scientist Professor Alan Melcher, from the University of Leeds, said: “The ability to predict when a patient’s cancer will come back would be an invaluable tool in treating the disease, allowing doctors to treat the recurrence rapidly and effectively before it takes hold. But we now need to find a way of using this knowledge to develop a test for patients whose cancer could take several years to reappear.”
In a surprising twist, the scientists also learned it was possible to force a cancer out of its slumber prematurely. The immune system’s defences could then be used to track down the cancer cells and wipe them out.
During the experiments, this approach cured up to 100% of the mice that would otherwise have relapsed.
Professor Kevin Harrington, joint head of radiotherapy and imaging at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, said: “This approach to re-awakening the cancer deliberately may seem controversial, but a similar approach is already used in some patients with thyroid cancers. They are given thyroid-stimulating hormone to reveal any hidden tumours so that they can be treated with further radio-iodide therapy.
“This illustrates the potential of a general clinical approach to flushing out any remaining cancer cells and treating them while they are still vulnerable, with the aim of curing the disease.”
The findings are reported in the latest issue of the journal Nature Medicine.
Neil Barrie, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, which funded the study, said: “Better treatments for cancer have meant that today more than half of all patients with the disease survive. But many have to live with the uncertainty that their cancer could one day come back.
“This approach to rooting out cancer cells that have hidden away and pre-emptively striking them is very promising and we now need to develop ways of doing this in cancer patients.”
Are you able to Speak Out Safely? Sign our petition to put pressure on your trust to support an open and transparent NHS.