A team of scientists from Stanford might have stumbled on what could be a powerful way to fight cancer. The researchers were already working on how to protect cancer cells from dying when they accidentally discovered that leukemia cells could be transformed into a type of immune cell that might attack other tumour cells. The findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
There is a specific type of cancer that affects the immature cells that are to differentiate into white blood cells, the lymphocytes, known as acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).
ALL is a rapidly-progressing cancer and exists in several types, depending on the kind of lymphocyte affected and on the maturity of the cells in question.
The current study dealt with the most common type of ALL called precursor B cell ALL, or B-ALL. This entails the lymphocytes known as B cells.
The B cells are targeted at an early stage of maturation such that they cannot fully differentiate into mature B cells. This happens as a consequence of losing certain cellular molecules known as transcription factors that are essential for their growth. When transcription factors are lacking, the specific genes related to their functioning cannot be switched on or off, thus obstructing the process of differentiation.
The scientists had as aim to learn more about the condition, B-ALL. They were desperate to keep the cells alive.
The lead researcher, Ravi Majeti, said in a press release:-
“We were throwing everything at them to help them survive.”
One of the methods they tried involved a particular transcription factor they exposed the cells to. They then observed that the cells changed in size and shape to ultimately resemble macrophages – a type of white blood cell that is known to ingest damaged cells and antigens.
When the researchers looked into the matter, they found that the modified cells expressed similar genes to regular macrophages and could also perform similar functions as engulfing bacteria. Most importantly, the cells did not cause cancer when they were added to mice without immune systems.
It seems that once changed into macrophages, the cancerous cells will not revert to their previous identity. Furthermore, the scientists believe that they might even allow the body to bring about an immune response against the other cancer cells – the modified cells will bear signals that will help them identify and deal with the latter.
The scientists now have to move to a further step: repeat the same in a clinically viable way.