For a long time now, scientists thought that it's natural for the body's immune system to ignore cancer cells; after all, they're naturally part of one's body, while the immune system is designed to attack foreign invaders. To make it easier to understand, know that cancer cells are actually mutated cells of the human body, ailed with genetic abnormalities caused by a variety of factors including cigarette smoke, chemicals, and other carcinogens (although it could also be hereditary). Now it's clear why one's immune system won't attack cancer cells, right? That, however, isn't an absolute truth. Actually, 20 years ago, scientists discovered that some immune system cells could actually attack skin cancer cells.
Image: Wright State UniversityArmed with the knowledge mentioned above, a group of researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle conducted a study on nine patients with fatal skin cancer. Out of the nine, only ONE showed positive results. While the figure might sound dismal, a single success is still better than none. The particular patient is a 52 year old man from Oregon who refuses to grant media interviews. However, we know that the man's tumors had allegedly vanished just two months into the therapy. Furthermore, two years later, all other symptoms disappeared.
*Pictured above, different types of skin cancer.
Skin cancer isn't something which spreads throughout the human body within a day or two. Detected during its early stages, cancerous patches of skin could be easily removed. Unfortunately, in its advanced stages, there's little which could be done. This is the reason why this study is of significance. Skin cancer starts with the melanoma—cells which cause the skin to tan upon exposure to UV rays. When the UV rays damage your cells and cause mutations though, a good summer tan isn't all you're going to get.
Image: WikipediaAntigen presentation stimulates T cells to become either killer cells or T helper cells.
The scientists involved in the research used an immune-priming treatment on the test subjects, or more precisely, used the patients' own immune systems to fight the skin cancer. Other recent research delving into the topic often focus on "killer T cells ," which is only natural since they're the lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) responsible for killing off mutant and tumor cells. The research conducted in this instance, however, used T helper cells or CD4+ T cells (another type of lymphocyte; CD4, by the way, is the surface protein) instead. T helper cells don't have the ability to kill other cells like killer T cells do. T helper cells are more involved in the activation of other cells in the immune system (hence the name "helper").
So, what exactly did the scientists do? First, they drew blood from the patients and located their T helper cells. Afterwards, they cloned the cells in the laboratory. Around 5 billion T helper cells are injected back into the subject's body in the hopes of getting rid of the skin cancer cells. This potential treatment procedure is a lot less toxic than any other and seems not to cause any side effect. It's still early to declare the research successful what with eight of the nine subjects inexplicably failing to recover. I believe though, that this one success could be the start of a whole new approach in skin cancer treatment.
Source: Associated Press, Guardian UK, USA Today