The immune response plays an important role in the fight against cancer. The immune response is incredibly potent, continuously seeking out invaders of the body such as viruses and bacteria. In particular, killer T cells are like the soldiers of the immune system, hunting down bacteria and virally infected cells and killing them. It is now believed that killer T cells also target and kill cancer cells.
Killer T cells identify infected or cancerous cells by examining “flag” proteins called MHC molecules on the surface of cells. These flags present a snapshot, in the form of protein fragments, of what is going on in the cell. If a cell is infected or cancerous the flags presented on their surface are recognised by the killer T cells as abnormal and the cell is destroyed.
However, cancers are often invisible to the killer T cells allowing them to survive and grow. Often the flags on the surface of cancer cells are either reduced in number or are changed in such a way that the killer T cells no longer recognise the cells as abnormal. In my laboratory we have identified a particular molecule called ERAP1, which is changed in cancer cells. ERAP1 makes the protein fragments that the flags use to present to the killer T cells. Cancer cells may have a reduced amount of ERAP1 and/or a variant of ERAP1 that does not function properly, resulting in either a reduced number of flags or changes in the way the flags look. We are currently identifying ways to reverse the changes to ERAP1 in cancer cells so that they can be recognised as abnormal by the killer T cells. We are also targeting the killer T cells themselves, to re-educate them to recognise the differences the cancer cells have, allowing them to target and kill them.
The money raised by Benali’s Big Run would enable this important research to continue for up to 5 years.
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