A group of cells that play a role in the body’s immune response could hold the key to “more effective” cancer treatments, researchers say.
Scientists have discovered how T cells, a subset of white blood cells, are activated to kill cancer cells after investigating the mechanism in mice.
The team from University College London (UCL) believes the findings could help scientists better understand how the immune system works and how it can be used to kill cancer cells as part of different immunotherapy approaches.
Immunotherapy is a form of cancer treatment that uses the power of the body’s own immune system to prevent, control, and get rid of the disease.
While T cells are good at finding and killing infected cells, they do not recognise most cancers, as tumours develop from own body tissue and appear normal to most T cells.
According to the researchers, the main challenge with T cell immunotherapy approaches is to find ways to direct T cells to attack cancer cells.
The new study is built on previous research which found that following immunotherapy, certain type of T cells, called the CD4+ T cells, directly engage with and kill cancer cells.
Professor Sergio Quezada, of the UCL Cancer Institute and co-lead author on the study, said: “We knew these immune cells had the ability to proactively kill cancer cells with incredible potency, but to maximise their potential, we needed to know how this mechanism was activated.”
The scientists performed an experimental study of immunotherapy in mice to understand more about how CD4+ T cells targeted and killed cancer cells.
They found that a molecule known as IL-2, which promotes the development of T cells, and Blimp-1, a protein that regulates white blood cells, work together to initiate “potent killer activity in CD4+ T cells”.
Prof Quezada added: “Our discovery provides the evidence and rationale for utilising Blimp-1 to maximise the anti-tumour activity of CD4+ T cells.
“Work is now under way in our lab to develop new personalised cell therapies where the activity of Blimp-1 can be maxed up to drive potent tumour control.”
Dr Emily Farthing, research information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “Research like this helps scientists better understand the intricacies of our immune system and how it can be utilised to kill cancer cells.
“This work in the lab adds to growing evidence for the potential of immunotherapy and will hopefully lead to the development of more effective treatments for people affected by cancer.”
The study, funded by Cancer Research UK, is published in the journal Immunity.