In the world of medicine, one of the biggest challenges and mysteries revolves around the immune system and how it works. Science knows that a healthy immune system fights off infection and other diseases, including cancer, but can also facilitate tumor growth.
Understanding which blood cells are working against the system and helping cancer cells grow has been an important goal for cancer researchers around the world, and now researchers from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital believe that they have found the answer.
According to a press release issued by the hospital, their researchers were aware that a diverse group of white blood cells called myeloid-derived suppressor cells were present in higher quantities in cancer patients.
Although the group’s activity was clear, scientists did not know which cells among the population were specifically responsible for suppressing the immune system. Working in the laboratory, they painstakingly followed a variety of white blood cells to determine which ones enhance tumor growth and suppress the immune system.
The group found that monocytes are the culprit.
“We have identified the monocytic cells as the important cell to target, not only in cancer but possibly for treatment of autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel diseases where dampening the immune response could provide relief,” said Peter Murray, Ph.D., author and member of the St. Jude departments of Infectious Diseases and Immunology.
“We also identified growth factors and other molecules essential to the survival and function of these monocytic cells. Targeting these molecules could lead to more precise approaches for controlling the immune response at the tumor site.”
Understanding exactly how the immune system operates in the face of disease is an important goal. According to the American Cancer Society, immunotherapy is a treatment protocol that takes advantage of the immune system’s natural function in order to fight cancer. Researchers who made similarly groundbreaking studies about other phases of the immune system have been able to make great strides in the treatments of a variety of cancers.
The study’s authors, writing in the journal, “Immunity,” have called their discovery a “turning point in cancer immunology and provide the foundation for developing more effective immunotherapies. This study marks a significant step in efforts to understand, develop and optimize immunotherapies for treatment of cancer.”