MIT researchers have created a synthetic gene circuit system that uses the immune system to fight cancer at its source.

The circuit, encoded in DNA, triggers a therapeutic response to two ‘specific cancer markers’ and can distinguish these from non cancer cells.

“There has been a lot of clinical data recently suggesting that if you can stimulate the immune system in the right way you can get it to recognize cancer,” explained Timothy Lu, head of the Synthetic Biology Group in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics. “Some of the best examples of this are what are called checkpoint inhibitors, where essentially cancers put up stop signs [that prevent] T-cells from killing them. There are antibodies that have been developed now that basically block those inhibitory signals and allow the immune system to act against the cancers.”

Instead of a single solution that targets the whole body, the MIT team wants to use combination therapies that complement each other and take on the evolving nature of cancer “locally at the tumour site”.

“Our belief is that there is a need to develop much more specific, targeted immunotherapies that work locally at the tumour site, rather than trying to treat the entire body systemically. Secondly, we want to produce multiple immunotherapies from a single package, and therefore be able to stimulate the immune system in multiple different ways,” added Lu.

A virus is used to send the circuit to the cancerous cells where it releases proteins that tell the immune system to attack the tumours.

Following successful testing on mice, the team says it will now test on a range of cancer models.