Reprogramming Cancer Cells into Immune Cells – A Potential Therapy for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Leukemia is a heterogeneous group of cancers that is characterized by abnormally high white blood cell counts. It is classified into different types based on the type of white blood cell affected.

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is characterized by the excessive production of immature B-lymphocytes, a white blood cell subtype. Consequently, the production of other essential blood cell types is adversely affected since the cancerous cells use up most of the resources required for their production. While standard and targeted therapies exist for treatment of ALL, it is particularly hard to completely rid the body of the cancerous cells and prevent the patient from relapsing.

Researchers at Stanford University have discovered a potential method of treating ALL. While trying to keep a patient’s cancer cells alive in the lab, Dr Ravindra Majeti (Assistant professor at Stanford) and colleagues realized that they had stumbled upon a method to get the cancer cells to mature into immune cells that are not only harmless to the body, but also help in tracking down and killing cancer cells.

On treating the ALL cells with a specific transcription factor, a protein that attaches to specific DNA sequences, Dr Majeti’s lab members noticed morphological changes in the cells. When they conducted further experiments, they found that the cancer cells were no longer cancerous and had actually matured into macrophages. Macrophages are cells of the immune system that form an important part of the body’s defense mechanism.

“Because the macrophage cells came from the cancer cells, they will already carry with them the chemical signals that will identify the cancer cells, making an immune attack against the cancer more likely,” Dr Majeti said in a news release.

Following up on these promising initial studies, the lab will look for a drug that is capable of inducing the same maturation effect on the cancer cells in the body, paving the way for new ALL therapies.

The original publication can be accessed here.

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