Switch to Turn on Cancer Killing Cells Key to Fight it in Future, Shows Study

Dr Nick Huntington and colleagues have found how a protein 'switch' boosts natural cancer-killing cells in the body.

Dr Nick Huntington and colleagues have found how a protein ‘switch’ boosts natural cancer-killing cells in the body. (WEHI)

Australian researchers have discovered the switch, a protein called ID2 that turns on natural killer cells in the body to fight and eliminate foreign cells including the cancer cells, thus providing a major clue to deal with cancer in the future.

A team of researchers from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Australia have found for the first time how the ‘switch’ that turns on these natural killer cells works by letting killer cells to become more responsive to growth factors in the blood.

The growth factor called IL-15 keeps natural killer cells active and when it is taken away, these cells die, said researchers. “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, hoping that their discovery would make it more interesting and potential in curing cancer.

“We knew this switch, or master regulator, was essential for the natural killer cell development but we had no idea how this worked,” he said.

The researchers said by giving an advantage to natural killer cells either by boosting their activity or by increasing their number or survival in the body, they can try to win the centuries-old battle against cancer. These cells are a type of white blood cells in the body, which deliver lethal toxic granules into cells that have become cancerous or infected, causing them to explode.

By manipulating the switch the researchers said they hope to fight viral infections or to help patients whose immune systems have failed due to lack of natural killer cells in their body, said researchers.

Now they hope that by supplying more growth factor, they can push cells to become natural killer cells, thus making it a major discovery in their effort to find a way to end cancer. This could overcome immune deficiencies in cells that are missing the switch by ‘tricking’ the cells into becoming natural killer cells, they said.

The new discovery can also help in dealing with side effects of rejection of donor stem cells in bone marrow transplants or fatal toxic shock syndrome, researchers said in their paper published in the journal Immunity.

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