The role of sticky tape in fighting skin cancer

Dr Patti Stoitzner

We all know the effects of pulling off a well-stuck band aid – pain and skin inflammation. But one of these negative effects is being put to good use by researchers at Wellington’s Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, who are working on ways to harness the body’s own immune system to fight skin cancer.

Chemotherapy and radiation are often successfully used to treat cancer, but researchers are always looking for new and less unpleasant therapies. The immune system can actually attack tumors, but is usually too slow.

Stimulating the immune system to fight cancer is a form of vaccination known as immunotherapy and the research of Dr Patti Stoitzner and Professor Franca Ronchese has led to significant advances in the field.

Professor Ronchese says, “The first trick is to persuade the immune cells to attack cancer cells. Tumours are made up of the patient’s own tissue and the immune system is programmed not to attack ‘self’. So we prepare a ‘vaccine’ from a patient’s tumour, and then we feed this vaccine through the skin to the cells which direct the immune respons (Langerhans cells). The second trick, and the subject of the Cancer Research Trust funded research, is getting the vaccine through the skin effectively so it can be taken up by the Langerhan cells.”

This is where the sticky tape comes in.

Repeatedly applying and removing sticky tape to the skin removes the top layer of dry skin and has two effects. First, it improves absorption of the vaccine; and second, it causes mild inflammation, encouraging the migration of Langerhans and other immune cells to the area – the more immune cells, the stronger the attack on the cancer.

Professor Ronchese says, “Our focus has been to maximise the immune response to the tumour by modifying the vaccine composition. This vaccine is carried in a cream and one cream we have tested mimics aspects of a viral infection, and increases the flow of immune cells into the site of the vaccination, boosting the immune response.”

This breakthrough may make immunothreapy a simpler option in cancer treatment, and Dr Ronchese is now working towards turning it into a clinical reality.

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