Researchers find how molecule tricks immune system to protect cancers

17 Feb 2017

Illustration of cancerous cell within the immune system. Image: UGREEN 3S/Shutterstock

Researchers from Trinity have achieved a major breakthrough in cancer research after identifying a molecule that tricks the body’s immune system into helping tumour cells to grow.

The body’s immune system is a powerful and complex mechanism capable of fighting off many diseases and infections, but sometimes it can be outsmarted by some very clever organisms.

Unlike common infections, tumour cells trick the immune system into triggering its ‘wound-healing’ ability to stimulate the growth of new tumour cells within damaged tissue, providing it with extra nutrients and oxygen.

While centres like Amgen in Ireland are developing advanced immunotherapy treatments to combat cancers after they are discovered, a new breakthrough from Trinity College Dublin could help researchers better understand how these cells hide in plain sight.

In a paper published to the journal Molecular Cell, the research team led by Prof Seamus Martin has identified a never-before-seen feature called TRAIL.

The TRAIL molecule is frequently found in high concentrations in many cancers and can be ‘rewired’ in certain tumours to send the inflammatory wound-healing signal.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer cells expressing a wound healing signal (green) in response to TRAIL. Image: Dr Conor Henry, Prof Seamus Martin/Trinity College Dublin

Might be able to turn off this reaction

What really piqued the interest of Martin and his team was that while TRAIL normally delivers a signal for cells to die, it can also send a wound-healing message from tumour cells.

Martin said: “Understanding how cancers turn on the wound-healing response has been mysterious, so we are very excited to find that certain cancers exploit TRAIL for that purpose.”

“This suggests ways in which we can turn off this reaction in cancers that use TRAIL to hoodwink the immune system into helping rather than harming them.”

In a good week for cancer diagnostics in Ireland, University College Dublin-based start-up OncoMark revealed it raised €2.1m in funding to release its innovative breast cancer diagnostic test in 2018.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic