Cancer Research UK scientists have found the first biological receptor that alerts the immune system to ‘dangerous’ or abnormal cell death, according to research published in Nature* today (Sunday).

Cell death is a normal process and essential for keeping tissue healthy. But sometimes cells undergo an abnormal form of death – called necrosis – in response to a trauma or injury.

It has long been suspected that sensing this type of cell death could kick-start an immune response because an injury could be accompanied by an infection. But, until now, a receptor with this function had not been found.

The discovery of a ‘danger receptor’ could improve our understanding of how immune cells work and help cancer drug discovery.

In addition to infections, some tumours could trigger this type of immune reaction, because tumours often have clusters of cells undergoing abnormal cell death at their core as they feed off a limited blood supply. This immune reaction helps the body fight cancer cells.

Dr Caetano Reis e Sousa, lead author based at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute, said: “After a 15 year hunt, we’ve identified the first ‘danger receptor’ – one which senses abnormal cell death and then triggers an immune response.

“The detection of ‘danger’ could explain some situations when a tumour triggers an immune reaction against itself.”

The receptor, called DNGR-1, is found on dendritic cells. Dendritic cells are messengers that instruct other immune cells – known as T cells – to attack foreign invaders.

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer information, said: “The concept of using the body’s immune system to fight cancer has been around for decades, but advances in recent years have made this field of research a very exciting one.

“The results of this study are really important scientifically and a step towards understanding how to manipulate the immune system to treat cancer in the future.”


For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.


Listen to an interview with Dr Caetano Reis e Sousa:

* Identification of a dendritic cell receptor that couples sensing of necrosis to immunity. Sancho et al. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature07750.

About cancer vaccines

DNGR-1 was discovered by Dr Reis e Sousa’s research group in 2008 as a receptor specific to dendritic cells and an important new target for cancer vaccines.

There are two main types of cancer vaccines – vaccines to prevent cancer and vaccines to treat cancer. Dendritic cells vaccines treat cancer. Vaccine therapy is one of the most exciting areas of cancer research, but is at a very early stage. To date, only a very small number of people have benefited from vaccines. So far, most vaccine therapy research has been as a treatment for melanoma. This is partly because of the lack of successful treatments for advanced melanoma.


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