Scientists find cancer’s ‘Achilles heel’ for new breakthrough treatment

Scientists believe they have found unique markings of a tumour which could allow the body to realise cancer is the enemy.

The marking is being called cancer’s “Achilles heel” and has the potential to create highly personalised treatments, which differ for each patient. 

This “Achilles heel” was discovered when scientists noticed that even as tumours grow the basic “trunk” of their mutation stays the same. 

These are known as “flags” which identify them as tumours. 

These so-called “flags” appear as surface proteins on the outside of the cell and are found in all patient’s cancerous tumours. 

This means we have found cancer-specific ‘flags’, and so scientists will tailor our immune systems into attacking them. 

The discovery, made by researchers at University College, London and funded by Cancer Research, may form the backbone of all new treatments, and will be tested on patients within two years. 


The treatment would be expensive however, and experts even worry that the idea, whilst having a good scientific basis, may be more complex when tested. 

Scientists have tried to develop cancer vaccines before, which is another way of using the power of the immune system, but they have largely failed. This is because treatments often confuse the immune system into attacking non-cancerous cells. 

With this new understanding of cancer cells though, there are two new treatments that can be developed. 

The first will develop vaccines which will train the immune system to recognise cancer. 

The second would locate immune cells which already tried to defeat cancer, grow multiple copies in a lab and re-insert them into the body. 

Professor Charles Swanton, and expert in cancer evolution from The Francis Crick Institute, said: “This is exciting. Now we can prioritise and target tumour antigens that are present in every cell – the Achilles heel of these highly complex cancers.”

The team found that in their study, patient’s immune system’s had already launched an attack on tumours. 

Immune cells were even found buried within cancer ones – meaning tumours have their own ‘self-destruct’ situation, because these cells recognise their “flags”. 

The issue is this attack on these “flags” is too feeble, and immune cells are often outnumbered or too weak. 

This treatment, if successful, could be the most effective in cancers which are heavy in mutations, such as melanoma and lung cancer related to smoking. 

Dr Marco Gerlinger, from the Institute of Cancer Research, said: “This is a very important step and makes us think about heterogeneity as a problem and why this gives cancer this big advantage.

Key facts

  • Cancer is caused by the uncontrollable mutation of cells. This means the cells won’t stop dividing, and then spread throughout the body. This can cause what we call tumours. 
  • ‘Cancer heterogeneity’ refers to how cancer grows. They begin with a “trunk” mutation, named above as a “flag”, but then develop with mutations ‘branching off’ into all different directions. This discovery identified the “trunk” mutation which never changes. 
  • In 2013, there were 352,197 new cases of cancer in the UK alone.