Spontaneous Cancer Cells Killed by Immune System Every Day


According to a new study out of Australia’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, spontaneous cancer cells associated with B-cell lymphomas develop in the human body every day and are quickly killed by the body’s first line of defense against disease, the immune system.

The Melbourne research study, published today in the journal Nature Medicine, revealed that the body’s immune system regularly eliminates potentially cancerous immune B cells in the blood before they develop into dangerous B-cell lymphomas, commonly referred to as non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas.

The research team made the discovery as they were attempting to learn more about how B cells change as lymphoma develops. They found that even though everyone experiences “spontaneous mutations” in immune B cells on a regular basis as a part of the body’s normal function, the relatively low occurrence of blood cancer resulting from these spontaneous cell changes can be attributed to the body’s immune system taking a proactive approach to killing them off.

It is the body’s T cells that appear able to detect and eliminate the potentially cancer causing abnormalities. During their research, the team “turned off” the T cell response and found that the cancer occurred very rapidly, over a period of mere weeks as opposed to the years it may have taken to develop, if it developed at all, with the adequate protection of the immune system. This finding is consistent with the existing knowledge that those with compromised immune systems are at greater risk for developing B-cell lymphomas. Dr. Axel Kallies, one of the lead researchers on the project, said that this work reveals that the “immune system is better equipped than we imagined” to rid the body of the dangerous cancer producing B cells.

B-cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is reportedly the most frequently occurring type of blood cancer in Australia where this study was conducted. Typically a person is not diagnosed with the cancer until the presence of a potentially difficult to treat tumor is detected. These researchers hope that for the 2800 people diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma in their country yearly, this information could lead to earlier detection.

It is hoped that a diagnostic test capable of identifying people at higher risk to develop the cancer might be developed. Such a test might allow for the troublesome B cells to be removed, through the use of already existing technology, prior to tumor formation and established manifestation of the disease, or to at least allow doctors to assist in slowing down tumor growth with these methods.

In the United States, nearly 70,000 people were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas last year and more than 19,000 died as a result of the cancer. Of those diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, approximately 85% were diagnosed with B-cell lymphomas. There are more than half a million people in the U.S. living with this disease and hoping to survive. As with all cancers, early detection is key. No doubt many will have their eyes on this group of Melbourne researchers as their findings about the spontaneous killing of cancer causing B cells by the immune system offers hope for earlier detection and new treatment options.

By Michele Wessel




National Cancer Institute

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