While more than 9 million people die of cancer each year, scientists may be one step closer to finding a more effective treatment after a team of Australian researchers made a crucial breakthrough.
A team of researchers from the Telethon Kids Institute discovered that rather than eradicating a cancer altogether, permanent dormancy may be the way to go. The findings, published in the Nature Journal, discovered the role a particular immune cell known as tissue-resident memory T (TRM) plays in controlling the growth of melanoma tumours.
Researchers explained that it’s been known for years that malignant cancer cells could remain in a person for decades without manifesting as a disease, before waking up and becoming life-threatening. This state is known as immune-mediated equilibrium.
“What we haven’t understood are the mechanisms responsible for keeping tumours under control and in this state of dormancy,” Head of the Cancer Immunotherapy Group at Telethon Kids Jason Waithman said in a statement. “All we knew was that this ‘black box’ of cancer control existed – and that if we could understand this process better, we could potentially learn how to exploit it in more patients, thus saving more lives.”
Researchers developed a novel melanoma model that allowed them to study immune-mediated equilibrium further. They ended up discovering an important cell type responsible for driving and maintaining the process.
Using highly sophisticated technology, they were able to watch the unique cell population surveying the cancer and keeping it asleep.
“This showed us how the immune system was involved, and more specifically, we were able to identify the specific cell type – TRM cells – that was responsible,” Waithman explained. “We then set up an experiment where we depleted the TRM cells and found that removal of the cells broke that control of the melanoma cells and enabled the cancer to re-emerge.”
The next step for researchers is to explore the mechanism further so they can make the process of keeping cancer asleep happen more often. It is hoped the findings will lead to improvements in existing cancer immunotherapies.
The latest discovery comes less than a month after a game-changing cancer test was developed by researchers at the University of Queensland.
Researchers from the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology designed the simple and inexpensive test which can detect cancer in any tissue type with results in just 10 minutes.
That study, published last month in the Nature Communications Journal, focused on differences in the genetic code of cancerous and healthy cells after researchers discovered a consistent DNA marker across several types of cancer they examined.
The team invented the technology around changes in chemical patterns on the DNA of cancer cells, which they described to the Courier Mail as like finding different decorations on Christmas trees.
“The tree is the DNA. Normal cells tend to have decorations that cover the entire tree,” Dr Laura Carrascosa said. “When cancer happens, the tree loses most of its decoration. The baubles that are left tend to cluster only on some parts of the tree.”