Cancer researchers highlight importance of 'natural killer cells'
Article date: 10 September 2014
Specialised immune cells known as natural killer cells could be used to help destroy cancers that are in the process of spreading to other areas of the body.
Research carried out by experts in Melbourne, Australia found they also play a crucial role in bone marrow transplants and the immune response associated with toxic shock syndrome.
Their discoveries came about after an investigation into a bodily protein known as MCL-1, which is used to help natural killer cells survive and it's hoped the findings can be used to gain a better understanding of how they can support the fight against different forms of cancer, as well as other ailments.
The scientists described the cells as being predators of the immune system - actively searching the body to try to track down viruses and other foreign invaders. They are also adept at sensing changes within our biological systems that are generally linked to the development of cancer.
MCL-1 has been identified as a key element of ensuring the cells can function, which in itself is essential - without them, it is much easier for a cancer to overwhelm the area it has been established in and spread.
"Knowing how important natural killer cells are for detecting and destroying cancer cells as they spread suggests they would be a good target for boosting immune defenses to treat cancer," said Dr Nick Huntington, who co-led the study.
However, in other cases, it could be beneficial for scientists to manipulate natural killer cells in the opposite manner, as they are also linked with incidences where a patient's body rejects bone marrow transplants, resulting in toxic shock syndrome, which can be fatal.
As a result, the next step for scientists is to ascertain how they can boost or deplete the cells accordingly, which could pave the way for breakthrough treatments in the future.