Scientists discover new anti-cancer cellular mechanism

January 20th, 2009 - 12:34 pm ICT by IANS  

Toronto, Jan 20 (IANS) Scientists have identified a basic mechanism controlling cellular activity of the type that kills cancer cells and cells infected by hepatitis and herpes viruses. This discovery could impact the treatment of cancers and infectious diseases. Existing regimens frequently achieve only limited results with these types of diseases, which affect hundreds of thousands.

Known as natural killer (NK) cells, they are produced by the immune system. Their deficiency is associated with a higher incidence of cancers and serious infections.

“Our breakthrough,” said AndrĂ© Veillette, who led the research team, “demonstrates that a molecule known as CRACC, which is present at the surface of NK cells, increases their killer function.”

Veillette is from the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM) and an internationally known immunologist.

Using mice, researchers have shown that CRACC greatly improves the animals’ ability to eliminate cancer cells such as melanoma (a skin cancer) and lymphoma (a blood cancer).

Mice lacking the CRACC gene, generated in Veillette’s lab, were found to be more susceptible to cancer persistence. Conversely, stimulation of CRACC function was found to improve cancer cell elimination.

Thus, stimulating CRACC could boost NK cell activity, helping to fight cancers. In addition, it could improve the ability to fight infections, which are also handled by NK cells.

Increasing the activity of CRACC by gene therapy or drugs could become an option in the future to stimulate the killer function of NK cells, and to improve their capacity to destroy cancer and virus-infected cells.

These approaches could be used in combination with chemotherapy and radiotherapy to increase the effectiveness of anti-cancer treatments, said an IRCM release.

Teams of scientists around the world have been trying for many years without success to develop methods to increase NK cell activity. In this light, the discovery of Veillette’s team opens new avenues for the treatment of cancers and viral infections.

These findings has been published in the January edition of Nature Immunology.

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