Every 9 minutes, someone who has been diagnosed with a blood cancer in the US dies. That is roughly 155 a day. Bone marrow and blood cancers like leukemia are notoriously hard to treat because our bodies become resistant to the treatments. But, thanks to a new study done by researchers at The Scripps Research Institute, there is hope: turn the leukemia cells against themselves.
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In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have found a way to actually use leukemia cells against other leukemia cells. It’s done by tricking leukemia cells into becoming leukemia-killing immune cells. The breakthrough was found in the form of an extremely rare human antibody, and the results have been very promising.
Antibodies are proteins in the blood that are a big part of our immune system. They are essentially the “handcuffs” for white blood cells because they bind themselves to foreign invaders in the bloodstream and either neutralize them or tag them for destruction. The researchers were initially trying to develop a treatment for people that had immune cell deficiencies due to issues with bone marrow. Basically, they wanted to flood the blood with these antibodies, specifically targeting immature bone marrow cells in the hopes that they could help the bone marrow cells achieve maturity faster and produce more white blood cells. What they found surprised them.
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Some of the cells that were flooded with antibodies turned into completely different types of cells. Using that data, researchers then flooded a blood sample that was rich in a particularly dangerous type of leukemia cells, Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). AML causes a person’s body to produce far too many white blood cells and interferes with other blood cell type’s production. Amazingly, the antibodies transformed the AML cells into dendritic cells – a key cell in the immune system. Dendritic cells behave much like white blood cells in the fact that the hunt down and kill certain threats in the body like viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells. The more the AML cells were exposed to antibodies, the faster they matured into fully functioning dendritic, or “natural killer” (NK) cells. These NK cells were able to destroy 15% of the untransformed AML cells of one blood sample in a single day. In the end, the researchers had turned AML cells into the NK cells that kill them. What was really intriguing, is that the AML cells that had transformed into NK cells ONLY attacked other AML cells. Think of it a fratricide on a cellular level.
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When you are looking at a condition like AML that has an overall survival rate of less than 25%, this treatment has amazing promise. The technique, which is being called “fratricidin therapy” could be used to treat a wide variety of cancers by turning the cancer cells into NK cells – and CURING the cancer.