T cells have the natural ability to target and destroy cancer cells and scientists have long since sought a way to recruit these innate defenders to rid the body of tumors. Weakening their ability to become an effective treatment, however, is the T cells’ short life spans. But researchers at the RIKEN Research Center for Allergy and Immunology in Yokohama, Japan have devised a way to increase the number of cancer-fighting T cells and make up for their short life spans with the hope that the superior numbers of immune cells will enable them to overwhelm and conquer.
The treatment centered around immune cells known as cytoxic T cells – also known as killer T cells – that recognize proteins on the surface of cells that signal that they are infected or cancerous. In the current study the researchers worked with T cells that attack a specific kind of melanoma. In an elegant display of bioengineering, they first converted the T cells into stem cells, grew the stem cells to large numbers, and then converted them back to T cells. The new T cells were still able to recognize and attack melanoma cells, due in part to their continued ability to produce the anti-tumor substance interferon-gamma.