A friend in need is a friend indeed, and according to a new study we may soon be able to help our family and friends who are most in need in a truly amazing way. According to the research, immune system cells from healthy patients can be injected into cancer patients to help them battle the disease, and possibly even save their lives.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Netherlands Cancer Institute and University of Oslo/Oslo University Hospital and is now published in the online journal Science. The researchers were investigating the power of immunotherapy, a new technique to treat cancer that uses the power of a patient's own immune system.

Our immune system is perfectly equipped to help protect our bodies from a number of diseases and viruses, including cancer. Unfortunately, part of what makes cancer so effective is its ability to “hide” from the immune system. According to the American Cancer Society, many immunotherapy treatments involve helping the patient’s immune system T-cells recognize cancer so that they can destroy these cells before they have a chance to spread further and cause damage. The T cells seek out certain foreign protein fragments on the surface of cells called neo-antigens. When they find these fragments they kill the cell.

Despite the use of new immunotherapy treatments, in some patients the immune system is still not able to control cancer cells for many reasons which are not completely understood. For the new study, Ton Schumacher of the Netherlands Cancer Institute and Johanna Olweus of the University of Oslo and Oslo University Hospital tested whether a borrowed immune system could help patients whose own immune system failed to respond to immunotherapy.

The team mapped out neo-antigens on the surface of melanoma cells in three different patients. Unfortunately, the patient's own T-cells did not recognize the cancer tumors. They then took T-cells from healthy volunteers and noted that these cells detected a significant number of neo-antigens that the cancer patients’ immune systems had ignored.

“In a way, our findings show that the immune response in cancer patients can be strengthened,” said Olweus in a recent statement. “The results show that we can obtain cancer-specific immunity from the blood of healthy individuals are already very promising."

Now the researchers are hoping to better understand the mechanism for how the T-cells see cancer so that they can isolate and replicate it.

Other recent breakthroughs in immunotherapy include a recent study that found a new way to sharpen the precision of cancer immunotherapy and better detect cancers by examining the proteins on the surface of the cell. The team accomplished this by using a software analysis to predict what sorts of mutations are present within a tumor and then looking to see which proteins were shared on these tumor cells. In the future, researchers hope to use this information to grow immune cells in a lab that can spot the proteins on cancer cells in order to form a cancer fighting force.

Source: Stronen E, Toebes M, Kelderman S, et al. Targeting of cancer neoantigens with donor-derived T cell receptor repertoires. Science . 2016