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Radiotherapy Kills Cancer Cells, Makes Immunotherapy more Effective

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According to a recent study, radiation therapy fights off cancers in more than just one way. It not only kills cancer cells, but also demonstrates the capacity to activate the immune system to turn on and attack tumor cells. Such an activation can be utilize to enhance current immunotherapies, such as anti-tumor vaccines, to produce better clinical results. What is less clear, however, is precisely how to merge the two therapies to get the optimal effect.

In order to address such an inquiry and possbily provide an answer, researchers at Thomas Jefferson University tested an experimental cancer vaccine in accordance with radiation therapy in mice with colorectal cancer. In data research published online in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, the researchers showed that the vaccine was most effective when tumors were irradiated first and then vaccinated a week later.

"Prior to these experiments, we didn't appreciate the impact that sequencing of these treatments had on their combined ability to generate immune and clinical responses. Remarkably, immune activation and tumor regression only occurred when radiation was given prior to vaccination," said Thomas Jefferson University radiation oncologist and first author of the study, Matthew Witek M.D.

When mice were administered either treatment on its own, the researchers observed that only a slight reduction in tumor size occured. However, when radiation was administrated first, the researchers noticed a six-fold increase in cancer-fighting immune cells, and impressively, complete remission of the majority of tumors.

“Although the work will need to be reproduced in humans to determine if the same holds true for cancer patients, the finding is exciting. In a patient population that will undergo radiation therapy as standard treatment, these results provide a roadmap to amplifying the effects of immunotherapies like the one we're developing for colon cancer,” said lead researcher and instructor in the department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Adam Snook, Ph.D.

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