For the first time ever, scientists have been able to convert a deadly cancer cell into a healthy, tumor-eating immune cell. Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine have made a chance discovery that raises hope for new treatments against the aggressive blood cancer.
They discovered it is possible to reprogram cancerous white blood cells to mature into harmless immune cells in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Precursor B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL) is an aggressive cancer that affects a type of white blood cell. It is also the most common type of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and B-ALL is a particularly aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis.
As the name suggests, this cancer originates from a rogue B cell that became stuck at an early stage of maturation. These immature cells are unable to fully differentiate into normal B cells, partly because they lost some cellular molecules, known as transcription factors, which are required for their development. Transcription factors are proteins that stick to bits of DNA and then switch certain genes on or off.
Due to its fatality, scientists from Stanford were keen to learn more about it with the hope of finding ways to tackle it, but they were struggling to keep cells isolated from a patient alive in the lab.
We were throwing everything at them to help them survive,” says Ravi Majeti, lead researcher.
After exposing the cells to a certain transcription factor, the scientists observed that they began to change size and shape, turning into a macrophage. A macrophage is a type of white blood cell responsible for gobbling up damaged cells or foreign material.
The team then started characterizing these cells in the lab, which revealed that they expressed similar genes to normal macrophages and were able to perform various macrophage functions, such as engulfing bacteria. Furthermore, when they added these reprogrammed cells into mice without immune systems, they did not cause cancer.
The reason why researchers believe that these converted cells will not only be neutralized with regards to their former identity as a cancerous cell, but they may also help the body mount an immune response against other cancerous cells lingering in the body because macrophages collect tags from abnormal cells or foreign material ready to flag down other members of the immune system for attack. Since these cells came from cancerous cells, they will possess signals that identify them as cancer.
So, this groundbreaking research also shows that we may be able to use actual cancer in the fight against cancer and not just to manipulate cancer cells.
The next step of the project will therefore involve investigating ways to achieve this cell conversion in a clinically viable way, which has already been done for one other type of cancer.
via Medical News Today