Cancer. The “Big C.” A name that instills fear in the hearts of those who hear it.
Cancer is truly one of the most terrifying diseases on the planet. In 2017, close to 1.7 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed, and over 600,000 people died from cancer this year alone. Many cancers are severe enough that there is no hope of recovery, and the treatment methods for manageable cancers are fear-inducing in their own right. The diagnosis of cancer is not an easy one to receive.
But a study from the University of Bonn may hold a bit of hope for the future. They discovered not a new medicine or alternative treatment for cancer, but a way that the human body itself may one day be able to eliminate the cancerous cells all on its own!
Killer T Cells are the immune system’s Doomhammer, a weapon of extreme power that can deal massive damage to its enemies: viruses, cancer cells, and pathogens. When a virus infects our bodies, our immune system sends out a swarm of these T cells to destroy all of the infected cells. Once all the infected cells are destroyed (leaving only healthy body cells), the T cells leave the site of the infection so the body can heal itself.
When it comes to cancer, the killer T cells are theoretically able to deal with the problem as well. The body unleashes the T cells on the cancer in order to kill off the infected cells. The problem is that cancer cells and tumors are able to develop mechanisms to protect against those T cells. They do so by pretending to be healthy tissue, tissue that is protected by the regulatory T cells. These are the cells that “turn off” the killer T cells once the infection is managed. The cancer cells essentially trick the regulatory T cells into believing they are healthy cells, which in turn causes the regulatory T cells to reduce the effect of the killer T cells by “putting them back in their cage”. Thus, the cancer cells are able to multiply unchecked because they’ve got the regulatory cells fooled.
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But according to the German researchers, there may be a simple solution: kill off the regulatory T cells!
The researchers experimented with a protein called IKKß, a protein that is naturally produced in the body and is responsible for activating your body’s immune response. When the researchers blocked this protein, the regulatory T cells died off, but the killer T cells survived—in fact, they even grew stronger, and their effects were more noticeable because there were no regulatory T cells to shut them down.
The researchers then tested their theory on mice with skin cancer. They applied the IKKß inhibitor and watched to see what happened. After just two weeks of this treatment, the amount of regulatory T cells dropped by 50%. The killer T cells, on the other hand, responded more strongly once the regulatory T cells were reduced. They were able to delay the growth of the skin cancer, thus extending the survival rate of the mice studied.
This discovery provides a fascinating new weapon in the war on cancer. By inhibiting the effects of the regulatory T cells, it may be possible to empower our bodies to deal with the cancer and tumor cells on its own. Killer T cells will be able to operate unhindered, potentially speeding up the destruction of tumor cells.
However, on its own, this new discovery isn’t the solution. The lead researcher stated, “complete healing cannot be achieved solely by inhibiting IKKß. By combining with other immunological active pharmaceutical ingredients, it may, however, be possible to stimulate the immune system to more effectively combat the cancer.”
Recent studies have examined other ways to take the “brakes” or inhibitors off the immune system in order to enable our bodies to repair the damage from cancer cells on its own. This new discovery provides insights into more ways to empower our bodies. Combined with other cancer treatments—medications that kill off cancer cells, therapies to activate our immune systems, and more—there may be a radically effective cancer treatment on the horizon. A great deal of research is left to be done, but there could truly be hope for a future in which our bodies are able to effectively fight and defeat cancer on their own!
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