There may be another use for coronavirus-fighting T-cells: Destroying cancer

TORONTO — Could T-cells created to fight off the novel coronavirus also be used to help battle cancer?

That’s the question a team of scientists from six countries hopes to answer.

Shashi Gujar, an assistant professor in the department of pathology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, is leading the team looking at whether the human immune system’s response to COVID-19 can be repurposed into targeting cancer cells.

There is already evidence that the influenza vaccine can trigger an immune response capable of attacking some forms of cancer, meaning getting the same result from a COVID-19 vaccine is not as farfetched as it may seem.

Whether generated through a vaccine or directly in response to a virus, T-cells are programmed to seek out and destroy certain invasive cells.

“They have this amazing capacity to go after threats like [SARS-CoV-2] in a highly specific manner,” Gujar said Wednesday on CTV’s Your Morning.

These cells also stay in the body for a long time, remembering their programming and guarding against reinfection. If a COVID-19 vaccine is cleared for use in many major countries, this could mean that a significant portion of the world’s population will develop these T-cells – presenting a tantalizing possibility if they can also fight cancer.

“What we are trying to do is really get these T-cells … to go after cancer cells,” Gujar said.

What makes this possible is the specific type of T-cells generated to fight COVID-19, known as CD8+. As Gujar and his team outlined in a paper published in the journal OncoImmunology in July, the CD8+ T-cell response is known to be effective at killing malignant cells while leaving healthy cells untouched. In fact, it’s the basis of many active studies around cancer immunotherapy.

They’re not a perfect match, though. T-cells come in multiple forms, and there is a difference between the antiviral CD8+ T-cells produced to fight COVID-19 and the antitumor ones used to fight cancers. Still, Gujar is optimistic that his team will find a way to harness the body’s natural response to the virus to also tackle invading cancers.

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