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How tumours trick the immune system into helping them, rather than harming them

Scientists funded by Worldwide Cancer Research at Trinity College Dublin have discovered how certain cancers hijack the immune system for their benefit, tricking it into helping rather than harming them.

The team from the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at TCD, led by professor of medical genetics, Seamus Martin, identified a molecule that sends a ‘wound-healing’ message from tumours.

“If we can disrupt this messaging system, we may be able to fight certain cancers,” said Prof Martin. The wound-healing aspect of the immune response stimulates the growth of new cells within damaged tissue and brings extra nutrients and oxygen into the injured tissue. However, cancers frequently exploit the wound-healing side of the immune system for their own ends. They can masquerade as damaged tissue to receive help from the immune system.

Scientists found that a molecule called TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand, that normally delivers a signal for cells to die can become rewired in certain tumours to send an inflammatory wound-healing signal.

“Understanding how cancers turn on the wound-healing response has been mysterious, so we are very excited to find that certain cancers exploit TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand. This suggests ways in which we can turn off this reaction in cancers that use TNF- related apoptosis-inducing ligand to hoodwink the immune system into helping rather than harming them, said Prof Martin.

He said about 90% of solid cancers are fooling the immune cells into doing its best to help the tumour.

“A lot of people don’t realise that many cancers are now very treatable because of breakthroughs like this enable new ways of attacking tumours. What we have discovered is another approach that can be used in the cancer treatment armoury.”

The research, supported by Worldwide Cancer Research and Science Foundation Ireland, is published in the peer-reviewed international journal Molecular Cell.

This article was originally published by The Irish Examiner.