In theory cancer can be tackled by elements of the body's own immune defences, especially white blood cells called T-cells.
But in practice, T-cells that target and kill cancer cells while ignoring healthy cells are very rare, and progress towards immune-based cancer treatments has been limited.
The new approach provides a way to reprogramme T-cells and develop large amounts of them "off the shelf" primed to attack specific cancers.
A small number of healthy human T-cells were first reprogrammed into malleable stem cells with embryonic properties, US scientists reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
These induced pluripotent stem cells (iPScs) were then manipulated to produce a tumour-specific receptor molecule on their surfaces.
Finally, the stem cells were coaxed to re-acquire their original T-cell properties while expanding to large numbers.
Each of the T-cells now had the all-important receptor that allowed it to target a particular cancer "antigen" or protein, in this case lymphoma.
Injected into mice with a human form of lymphoma, the lab-grown T-cells significantly suppressed tumour growth and increased survival.
The researchers, led by Dr Michel Sadelain from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York City, wrote:
"This approach of generating therapeutic human T cells 'in the dish' may be useful for cancer immunotherapy and other medical applications."Reference
Maria Themeli, Christopher C Kloss, Giovanni Ciriello, Victor D Fedorov, Fabiana Perna, Mithat Gonen & Michel Sadelain (2013). Generation of tumor-targeted human T lymphocytes from induced pluripotent stem cells for cancer therapy Nature Biotechnology DOI: 10.1038/nbt.2678