In the fight against cancer, one of the greatest hurdles can actually be our own immune system, which self-sabotages attempts by the body to fight against the invading tumour.
Now researchers have successfully found a way to get around this immune response resulting in a “significant delay” in cancer growth, and ultimately letting animals survive for longer.
The human immune system naturally has a series of in-built ‘brakes’ that automatically stop our bodies from going into overdrive - a mechanism that prevents an excessive response when foreign material infects us.
However necessary these defences are for normal bodily function, the immunological checkpoints also make us our own worst enemies.
This is because tumours are able to use and abuse these brakes by posing as the body’s own tissue, and effectively hiding in plain sight.
Powerful killer T cells, which swarm in huge numbers and destroy all infected cells (including, in principle, cancerous ones), can be outmaneuvered and abused.
The tumours are then protected to a certain degree by the very cells meant to be obliterating them.
But now, researchers from the University of Bonn, have been able to use a protein naturally produced in the body (IKKß inhibitor) to release the brakes.
The IKKß inhibitor has long been known to be a immunostimulant - a protein that promotes the activation of immune cells - and responsible for not activating them when they are needed.
So the team used a pharmaceutical ingredient mixed with IKKβ in a test tube, to try and block it, and subsequently kill off the regulatory T cells, leaving the killer T cells space to survive and breed.
Christoph Heuser, who worked on the study, said: “We were thus able to significantly increase the impact of the killer T cells.”
Testing this method in mice with skin cancer, they found that two weeks of treatment did cause the number of regulatory T cells to fall by 50% and make the killer cells stronger, but it wasn’t effective at totally saving the mice from the disease.
It just postponed the inevitable.
Professor Christian Kurts, says: “Complete healing cannot be achieved solely by inhibiting IKKß...however, be possible to stimulate the immune system to more effectively combat the cancer.”
The study could pave the way for more effective cancer therapies in the future.