Tuesday, September 15, 2009

September 15, 2009 - Natural Born Killers

They’re calling it a “master switch” that can turn on the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.

Maybe that description’s overblown, or maybe it’s not, but British scientists have surely made a breakthrough by identifying a gene that stimulates the body’s production of NK, or “natural killer” cells, a type of white blood cell.

From an article describing the new development:

“Infusions of natural killer cells donated from volunteers are already given to some cancer patients. However, because they come from another person, they are not a complete match and so do not work as well.

The discovery of the 'master-switch' – a gene called E4bp4 that causes ‘blank’ stem cells to turn into natural killer cells – paves the way for a drug to boost the patient’s own stock of the cells.

(Natural killer cells, highlighted in red, in the spleen of a virus-infected mouse. To find where this picture came from, click here.)

Researcher Hugh Brady, of Imperial College London, said: ‘The natural killer cell was like the Cinderella of the white blood cells, we didn’t know very much about them.

We knew a little bit about how they work but we didn’t know where they came from.

We stumbled on this when researching childhood leukaemia. We thought the gene was involved in that. It turns it probably isn’t but it has a very important role in the immune system.

With a bit of serendipity we have found the key to the pathway that gives rise to natural killer cells.’”

A lot more research is needed, says Dr. Brady, before any medication that stimulates natural-killer cell growth is ready for prime time. Scientists aren’t even 100% sure that NK cells always have a beneficial function:

“Now finally, we will be able to find out if the progression of these diseases is impeded or aided by the removal of natural killer cells from the equation.

This will solve the often-debated question of whether NK cells are always the ‘good guys’, or if in certain circumstances they cause more harm than good.’”

Good guys? Bad guys? It’s a cell-eat-cell world out there in the microscopic regions of the human body, it would seem.

Let’s just hope the scientists are onto a whole lot of new good guys with this one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very exciting news!