Our immune systems are highly trained to recognise and destroy foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. But cancer starts from our own cells, so it’s difficult for the immune system to recognise and fight tumours.
However, our immune defences do have some powerful weapons at their disposal, including a molecule called tumour necrosis factor, or TNF. As the name suggests, TNF activates the immune system to help kill cancer cells. But at a certain point in the development of cancer, TNF switches to the ‘dark side’ and starts encouraging tumours to grow and spread.
Now recent research, published in the journal Developmental Cell, from scientists at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow explains what causes this change.
Led by Dr Marcos Vidal, the team found that when a certain cancer promoting gene is switched on and another cancer protective gene is switched off, TNF changes from a cancer killer to a cancer promoter. At the moment the team are working with fruit flies, but they plan to find out if the same mechanisms are at work in human cells.
Here’s a short interview with Dr Vidal, explaining more about his work:
Understanding what causes TNF to ‘switch sides’ is an important step in unravelling why the immune system responds (or doesn’t respond) to cancer.
Many scientists around the world, including some funded by Cancer Research UK, are working on immunotherapy – treatments that harness the power of the immune system to destroy cancer cells. This new research helps us to understand more about the complexities of the immune response to tumours, and will shed light on lifesaving future treatments for cancer.
Cordero, J. et al (2010). Oncogenic Ras Diverts a Host TNF Tumor Suppressor Activity into Tumor Promoter Developmental Cell, 18 (6), 999-1011 DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2010.05.014
Nikki July 2, 2011
My mum is diagnosed with colon cancer a mth ago. She has been trying on certain herbs. Two days ago she went for another colonoscopy n got the hispathology report stating ‘areas of tumour necrosis noted’. What does that mean?
Kat Arney July 4, 2011
We’re sorry to hear about your mum. Unfortunately we can’t give medical advice over the blog, so you or your mum might like to call our Cancer Information Nurses for advice on freephone 0808 800 4040 (9am-5pm Monday to Friday). You can also contact them by email: http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/utilities/contact-us/
Bedd Gelert August 5, 2010
What the heck are ‘defenses’ for goodness sake ? !!