Cancer’s Secrets Revealed: How Researchers Exposed The Disease’s ‘Invisibility Cloak’ And What It Might Mean
We hear about our immune systems all the time: they might be overtaxed from overwork and exhaustion, they might be worn down from a recent cold or other illness. We know that the very old and the very young have much weaker and more vulnerable immune systems than healthy adults.
But one thing we rarely hear about in connection with the immune system is cancer.
Why is that? Why is it that one of the diseases reviled as a scourge of mankind is seemingly unaffected by our otherwise amazing immune system? It fights everything else we get infected or attacked by, even if it sometimes loses. Why does the immune system lay down on the job when it comes to the worst disease of all?
Well now a group of researchers out of the University of British Columbia in Canada may have at least a partial answer for that, and it sounds like something out of a Harry Potter novel: they say they have uncovered the functioning of cancer’s “invisibility cloak.”
It is this invisibility that allows cancer to slip past the body’s immune system as it spreads and tumors metastasize, and until now, we didn’t really understand how it worked.
“The immune system is efficient at identifying and halting the emergence and spread of primary tumours but when metastatic tumours appear, the immune system is no longer able to recognize the cancer cells and stop them,” said Professor Wilfred Jeffries, study lead author working in the department of Medical Genetics and Microbiology and Immunology at UBC.
His team’s research has not only uncovered how tumors manage to outwit the immune system–he claims they have made inroads into clawing back that invisibility.
“We discovered a new mechanism that explains how metastatic tumours can outsmart the immune system and we have begun to reverse this process so tumours are revealed to the immune system once again,” he said.
The key is a protein called interleukin-33, or IL-33. As cancer cells change on a genetic level over time, they lose the ability to produce this protein, and when that happens, the body’s immune system no longer recognizes the cancer cells. The tumor is then free to metastasize and spread throughout the body, unhindered by the immune system.
By researching several hundred patients who suffered from either prostate of kidney cancer, the research team was able to show that those whose tumors had lost the ability to produce IL-33 were likely to have a more rapid recurrence of their cancer within a five-year period.
In the next step, the researchers found that by putting IL-33 back into the patients tumors, they were able to reactivate the immune system.
Some day this research may lead to a way to keep cancer from metastasizing altogether, certainly a valuable step in beating the disease altogehter.