It is known that our immune system – the body’s natural defence against illness – can help in the fight against cancer.
But scientists at Trinity College Dublin have now discovered how certain cancers are capable of hijacking the immune system.
It sheds light on why some patients’ tumours are not fading and could prove a breakthrough in treating the disease.
Professor of Medical Genetics Seamus Martin and Dr Conor Henry, who led the research team, discovered that a molecule called TRAIL can act against the patient.
This molecule is found in high concentrations in some cancers – and it can actually help the tumour to survive.
The action can be particularly striking in cancers of the liver and pancreas.
It also affects other forms of the disease, including lung and breast cancer.
The discovery helps to explain how some tumours, which do not appear to die, are actually being rewired.
Prof Martin explained that most of us are aware that our immune system protects us from infection.
But we may be less aware of the key role that cells of the immune system also play in coordinating the repair of damaged tissue.
This ‘wound-healing’ aspect of the immune response stimulates growth of new cells within damaged tissue.
It brings extra nutrients and oxygen into the injured tissue.
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The groundbreaking research by the Trinity scientists showed how cancers frequently exploit the wound-healing side of the immune system for their own ends.
Cancers have been described as ‘wounds that do not heal’.
This is due to their ability to pretend to be damaged tissue, in order to receive help from the immune system.
The researchers showed the molecule called TRAIL can become ‘re-wired’ in certain tumours to send a false ‘wound-healing’ signal.
It has been likened to having a light switch that is incorrectly wired and not functioning properly.
The findings have been published in the internationally renowned journal ‘Molecular Cell’.
The discovery will help in the development of advanced therapies for cancer treatment.
Prof Martin explained:” “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.”
He added :”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.”
About 40,000 patients are diagnosed with cancer in Ireland annually.
However, it is reckoned that around four in ten could be prevented through better lifestyle.
These include avoiding excess weight gain, not smoking and drinking less alcohol.
Cancer now accounts for more than 30pc of all deaths in Ireland, and its prevention must be a high public-health priority.
The risk of developing cancer is higher for men than for women, overall and for most cancer types.
Survival from cancer continues to improve and at the end of 2014 there were 139,526 people still alive whose cancer had been diagnosed over the previous 21 years. This is equivalent to 3pc of the population.
The most numerous cancer survivors were those who had been diagnosed with breast cancer (31,655).