Stanford University researchers have made the potentially groundbreaking discovery that leukaemia cells can be made harmless if they are forced to ‘grow up’, before turning on other cancer cells and eating them up.
In what could turn into a brand new way of combating the illness, Scott McClellan and his team found out, by accident, that by keeping the cancer cells alive as long as possible, they eventually changed state into harmless immune cells called ‘macrophages’.
Better still, the metamorphosis can result in these cells eating up cancer cells and pathogens, essentially cleaning up after themselves.
Ravi Majeti, one of the authors of the paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, made the discovery when looking at B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia with a mutation called the Philadelphia chromosome.
This is a particularly aggressive form of cancer, although significant improvements in treatment have come on stream in the past decade or so.
The researchers were basically trying their best to keep cancerous cells alive on a culture plate, “throwing everything at them to help them survive,” said Majeti.
They realised the change in cells before suggesting that the macrophages would then look to eat up all other cancer cells.
“Because the macrophage cells came from the cancer cells, they will already carry with them the chemical signals that will identify the cancer cells, making an immune attack against the cancer more likely,” Majeti said.
Now the hard work begins, with the hunt on to find a drug that can mirror these effects.
Cells image via Shutterstock