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Immune cell ‘switch’ discovery can help fight cancer

Saturday, Feb 27, 2016,14:46 IST By Metrovaartha A A A

Melbourne | Researchers have discovered the mechanism which drives specialised immune cells that detect and kill cancer cells in the body, offering scientists a new way to develop potential drug targets and cancer treatments.

The immune cells, called natural killer cells, hunt and destroy foreign cells in the body, including cancer cells that spread and form tumours, researchers from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) here in Australia said. They found for the first time how the ‘switch’ that turns on these natural killer cells works.

Researchers found that the switch, a protein called ID2, works by allowing natural killer cells to become responsive to growth factors in the blood. A growth factor called IL-15 keeps natural killer cells active and alive  if it is taken away these cells die, researchers said.

This is an exciting discovery because previous research has shown that these natural killer cells are really potent in killing tumours – breast and colon cancer and melanoma cells, said Nick Huntington from WEHI. We knew this switch – or master regulator – was essential for the natural killer cell development but we had no idea how this worked, Huntington said.

The research allowed scientists to think of new strategies to regulate the activity of natural killer cells by targeting the switch and could lead to new treatments. If we can give an advantage to natural killer cells by boosting their activity or numbers or survival in the body then we can try to win that fight against cancer, Huntington said. Natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell prevalent in the body, deliver lethal toxic granules into cells that have become cancerous or infected, causing them to explode.

The switch that controls them could also be manipulated to fight viral infections or to help patients whose immune systems have not developed properly because their bodies lack natural killer cells, researchers said. The real paradigm shift is that we can now make natural killer cells appear even when this switch is missing, purely by supplying more growth factor to the specific environment  we can push cells to become natural killer cells.

It is a really novel biological discovery, said Huntington. The findings marked the first time scientists could overcome immune deficiencies in cells that are missing the switch by ‘tricking’ the cells into becoming natural killer cells using growth factor.

Conversely, the natural killer cell switch could potentially be turned off in instances in which these cells proved damaging, such as when they prompt the rejection of donor stem cells in bone marrow transplants or produce signals that result in the potentially fatal toxic shock syndrome, researchers said.