All of us have immune systems that protect us from foreign cells and different life forms inside of our body. The immune system recognizes invaders by different histo-compatibility complexes on the cell surfaces. The immune system uses hunter killer cells called T-cells to scan for foreign invaders and martial defense.
Cancer cells are not foreign cells so the immune system normally does not see them as needing to be killed off. This presents a problem if you want to use the immune system to fight cancer.
Some have tried it by genetically modifying T-cells to specifically target certain cancer cells but this has been of limited use. so far this therapy only really works on non-solid cancers like cancers of the blood. If the cancer has made a tumor then this method of attack does not work.
It turns out that there is a marker that appears on the surface of cells that have gone cancerous that a very very few T-cells can recognize as being a dangerous thing that needs killing off. We know this because researchers just have found these T-cells.
They have worked out a therapy whereby blood is harvested from a patient, these T-cells are found, they are amplified and reintroduced into the patient. So far this has been tested on many different cancers in the lab. The hope is that this will be usable as a therapy to treat humans.
The cells reintroduced into the human body are not genetically modified in any way – they are the patient’s own cells. So this would get past any squeamishness or regulatory requirements that genetically modified cells, and treatments employing genetically modified cells, have to get past.
You can read more about it in this BBC article Immune discovery ‘may treat all cancer’ .
The T-Cells are hunting a particular version of the MHC molecule coded by the MR1 gene. Major Histocompatibility Complex molecules are the markers on the surface of every cell in your body. The MR1 gene encodes the MR1 protein, composed of 341 amino acid residues and stored within the enfolded pockets of the endo-plasmic reticulum (basically the outer wall of the cell folded inwards to form storage pockets).
About the MR1 protein: “binding of bacterial riboflavin-related molecules to MR1 occurs, causing it to be sent to the cell surface for presentation”. At that point the T-Cells can ‘see’ it (taste might be more to the point). And once they can see it they can be triggered into action.
Something about MR1 must get modified by the malfunctioning (cancer) cell in a way that sets it apart from other MR1 molecules expressed on non-cancerous cells. Is the MR1 gene the source of the change or is it something in the altered cell’s intra-cellular machinery that’s the source?
Are all cancerous cells the same in their alterations to MR1? The wide scope of effectiveness against different types of cancers of this treatment in the lab seems to point in that direction. If that is the case then – Wow!
If could be that once they’ve successfully moved this from lab to practice the War on Cancer, begun under the Nixon administration nearly 40 years ago, could finally be drawing to an end.
Ideally people with a cancer diagnosis might get a simple outpatient treatment taking two short sessions with one follow-up to scan for lingering residues. No expensive, deforming, debilitating Surgeries. No horrible Chemo. No scary Radiation.
Wouldn’t that be just great?