Six years in the making, a new discovery targeting the immune system with a newly discovered protein could be a game-changer in certain chronic diseases like cancer. Especially in the elderly since this category of patients tends to have increased deactivation of their t-cells as they contract infections and age. Published online this last April 16 2015 in the journal Science, the results of this study has been heralded as a breakthrough.
WHY A BREAK-THROUGH ?
Because cytotoxic T cells are usually overwhelmed by the cancer process which tends to grow exponentially and outnumber the T cells. With the proper expression of this protein’s gene, ten times more T cells could be produced, which could then seriously weaken if not reverse the cancer process.
WHAT IS THIS DISCOVERY ABOUT ?
By screening mice with genetic mutations, the Imperial team discovered a strain of mice that produced 10 times as many cytotoxic T cells when infected with a virus compared with normal mice. These mice suppressed the infection more effectively, and were more resistant to cancer. They also produced more of a second type of T cells, memory cells, enabling them to recognise infections they have encountered previously and launch a rapid response.
WHAT WAS THE KEY ELEMENT IN THIS STRAIN OF MICE ?
The mice with enhanced immunity produced high levels of a hitherto unknown protein, which the researchers named lymphocyte expansion molecule, or LEM. They went on to show that LEM modulates the proliferation of human T cells as well as in mice. This is significant because cancer cells turn much of the body’s immuno-surveillance system off, leaving few T cells to recognize the cancer and fight it. T-cells effectively attack and poison cancer cell to death, but they are simply outnumber by the cancer cells.
WHERE IS THIS RESEARCH GOING ?
The researchers now aim to develop a gene therapy designed to improve immunity by boosting the production of LEM. With the support of Imperial Innovations, the technology commercialisation company for the College, the researchers have filed two patents. A company called ImmunarT has been formed with the aim of commercialising the technology.
Because cancer cells have ways to suppress T cell activity, the imperial scientists hope to genetically engineering T cells to augment their ability to fight cancer by bypassing this suppressing mechanism. Thereafter, with this new LEM protein, these scientists hope to introduce an active version of the LEM gene into the T cells of cancer patients, thanks to which the patient may have ten times more T-cells engineered to bypass the cancer suppression mechanism.
This approach is based on the ability of the protein LEM to regulate specific energy circuits, and particularly mitochondrial respiration, in a subset of white blood cells known as cytotoxic T cells. If successful, many age related diseases involving altered immune and inflammatory responses will be able to be better addressed. These include chronic inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, such as atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. Ch. J.