According to the report, which was published in Science journal, the team has found the previously unknown protein that drives the spread of cancer-fighting T cells by causing a high energy boost.
— Imperial College (@imperialcollege) April 17, 2015
When the immune system detects tumor, it normally starts generating a large quantity of cytotoxic T cells that kill viruses and cancer. However, the proliferation of T cells quickly decreases.
While conducting screens for genetic mutations in mice, the researchers discovered one type that produced 10 times the number of cancer-killing T cells, becoming resistant to tumor and viruses. These mice generated a large amount of the protein that is also found in humans.
The new molecule, entitled lymphocyte expansion molecule (LEM), makes the immune system generate more tumor-killing T cells by producing a large amount of energy. Moreover, it minimizes the risk of cancer recurrence by increasing immune memory cells, which help the body recognize viruses and tumors that have been previously discovered.
“Cancer cells have ways to suppress T cell activity, helping them to escape the immune system. Genetically engineering T cells to augment their ability to fight cancer has been a goal for some time and techniques for modifying them already exist. By introducing an active version of the LEM gene into the T cells of cancer patients, we hope we can provide a robust treatment for patients,” said Professor Philip Ashton-Rickardt, from the Section of Immunobiology in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College.
Dr Claudio Mauro, who carried out the research at Queen Mary University of London’s William Harvey Research Institute, stated: “This study has identified the novel protein LEM and unlocked an unexpected way of enhancing the ability of our immune system to fight viruses or cancers. This is based on the ability of the protein LEM to regulate specific energy circuits, and particularly mitochondrial respiration, in a subset of white blood cells known as cytotoxic T cells.”
Scientists are now planning to produce a gene therapy that will make the body fight off cancer or other viruses itself. Under the plan, they will use LEM to enhance T cells of patients and inject them back into the body.
The team is planning to commence human trials in 3 years, after testing the therapy in mice.
“Next we will test the therapy in mice, make sure it is safe and see if it can be combined with other therapies. If all goes well, we hope to be ready to carry out human trials in about three years,” Professor Philip Ashton-Rickardt said.