Laboratory studies often don’t go as planned. While this usually causes frustration with scientists, some of the best discoveries have been made by accident, like the pacemaker and penicillin. With this in mind, researchers may have found something that could turn out to be a breakthrough against an aggressive type of cancer.
Scientists from Stanford Medicine have found that it is possible to force leukemia cells to mature into a type of immune cell that could help the body get rid of other tumor cells.
They discovered this while trying to find ways to prevent cancerous cells from dying during experiments.
The study has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
What is cancer?
For the current study, scientists were investigating the most common type of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, known as precursor B cell ALL, or B-ALL. As the name suggests, this cancer originates from a rogue B cell that became stuck at an early stage of maturation. These immature cells are unable to fully differentiate into normal B cells, partly because they lost some cellular molecules, known as transcription factors, which are required for their development. Transcription factors are proteins that stick to bits of DNA and then switch certain genes on or off, IFL Science wrote on their website.
B-ALL is an aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis. So the scientists were trying to learn more about it. They were finding it difficult to keep cells isolated from a patient alive in the lab. “We were throwing everything at them to help them survive,” lead researcher Ravi Majeti said in a news release. The scientists noticed that some of the cancer cells in culture were changing shape and size into what seemed to be macrophages. Majeti remembered that an old research paper showed that early B-cell mouse progenitor cells could be forced to become macrophages when exposed to certain transcription factors.
Introduction to cancer biology:
“B-cell leukemia cells are in many ways progenitor cells that are forced to stay in an immature state,” Majeti said. So they conducted more experiments and were able to confirm that the methods shown to have altered the fate of the mouse progenitor cells years ago could also be used to transform these human cancer cells into macrophages, which engulf and digest cancer cells and pathogens.
There is some hope that when the cancer cells become macrophages, they will not only be neutralized, but may actually assist in fighting the cancer. “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,” Majeti said.
Cancer: from a healthy cell to a cancer cell:
The researchers’ next steps will be to see if they can find a drug that will prompt the same reaction and that could serve as the basis for a therapy for the leukemia. There is some precedent for such a treatment. Retinoic acid is commonly used to treat another cancer called acute promyelocytic leukemia.
In that case, retinoic acid is used to turn cancer cells into mature cells called granulocytes. This treatment is the only well-established therapy that matures, or “differentiates,” cancer cells, but researchers around the world are hopeful of finding many more. “There’s big-time interest in differentiation therapies for cancer,” Majeti said in their release.
Sometimes it’s good to make mistakes or have things work out as planned. You just never know what may be around the corner.