A team of researchers has developed a method to produce cells that kill tumour cells in the lab and prevent tumours forming in mouse models of cancer. Although the current work is in cells and mouse, if the research transfers to human biology, the new type of cell could be a new source for cell-based anticancer therapies.
The cells were produced by knocking out a single gene essential in the pathways of development of immune cells: the modified cells become a novel type, which the authors call Induced T to Natural Killer Cells (ITNK cells).
Many cell types cooperate in the immune system to battle invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, and to remove abnormal or dead cells. T lymphocytes/T cells play an important part in defending against pathogens and abnormal self cells. They are thought also to play a role in autoimmune disease.
In this research, T cells were transformed into cells similar to another type, Natural Killer (NK) cells, which commonly act against viruses and cancer cells.
"We have been examining ways to produce clinically useful immune system cells," explains Peng Li, PhD student and first author on the publication, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "We had shown that a gene called Bcl11b was essential for normal development of immune system cells - and of particular interest in the development of T cells.
"Here we can see the fruits of that work: we show, for the first time, that we can modify the developmental fate of immune system cells to produce a novel type that - if we can see the same effect in humans - could be of enormous value in cancer treatment."
The Bcl11b protein is a master switch that works by regulating the activity of other genes and it was known to be important in the immune system. However, this role in T lymphocyte development is entirely novel.
In the careful research, the team first showed that the Bcl11b gene was active only in T cells in the immune system and that its activity was needed at the earliest stages of production of T cells. When the team knocked out the Bcl11b gene, the mice produced no T cells.
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