Cancer affects one in three people, and is the second biggest killer after cardiovascular disease. We need new ways of treating this devastating illness, and researchers are always on the lookout for new ideas, particularly involving the most dangerous part of cancer: metastasis.
Could the use of unnatural killer cells coated with cancer-killing proteins be the new cure for cancer?
What is Metastasis?
Metastasis occurs when cells from the cancer spread to others parts of the body through the lymph system or bloodstream, starting new cancer growths in the new locations. The National Cancer Institute tells us, “The most common sites of cancer metastasis are, in alphabetical order, the bone, liver, and lung.”
According to scientists at Cornell University, around 90% of all deaths are related to metastasis, and these scientists are actively researching ways to reduce this figure.
Curing Cancer? Unnatural Killer Cells Target and Destroy Cancer Cells in the Bloodstream
The scientists at Cornell have come up with a new idea to try and target and destroy cancer cells once the cells have broken off the original tumor and entered the bloodstream. This new process, in theory, prevents the cancer from invading other tissues. The researchers have accomplished this by developing ‘unnatural killer cells’ inspired by the cytotoxic nature of natural killer cells, which are a type of lymphocyte or white blood cell normally present in the body. Natural Killer Cells play an important role in the immune system; as their name implies, they kill targeted cells, such as tumor cells and virally-infected cells.
Unnatural killer cells are tiny artificially created spheres (called liposomes) which are coated in the cancer-killing protein TRIAL. These spheres are also coated with another protein called ES, as this was found to make them ‘stickier’ so they adhere better to the cancer cells. This in turn improves the effectiveness of TRIAL.
Unnatural Killer Cells Highly Effective
When the researchers injected these TRIAL/ES coated spheres into the blood, the spheres attach themselves to the white blood cells. These white blood cells then bump into any cancer cells that are present in the blood, where the TRIAL protein triggers apoptosis (cell death) of the cancer cell. The results of this study have shown these spheres are highly effective at treating cancer cells present in the peripheral circulation of mice and in human blood samples.
Before unnatural killer cells can be tested on humans, however, the scientists must carry out much more research. But so far, the results have been promising.
Prevent Metastasis in Invasive Cancers
These spheres could be a preventive measure for certain types of cancer that have high rates of metastasis including breast, prostate, and lung cancers.
Previous studies have shown that a wide range of agents are able to sensitize cancer cells to TRAIL-mediated apoptosis. This includes drugs currently used in chemotherapy. This process could further improve the effectiveness of the unnatural killer cells, and potentially stop cancer in its tracks.