A "danger receptor" that may kick-start an immune reaction to cancer in the body has been found by UK researchers. It picks up signs of cell death caused by injury or tumors and mobilizes the body's defenses, Nature reports. The finding may explain why some tumor-killing drugs partly work by setting off an immune response.
Better understanding of the receptor could help develop cancer treatments that harness the immune system, the London Research Institute team said. Cell death is a normal process in the body which keeps growth and repair ticking over and keeps tissue healthy. But sometimes there is an abnormal type of cell death called necrosis. It has been thought for many years that the body somehow senses this abnormal cell death and sets off an immune reaction.
However, until now no receptor capable of detecting this abnormal cell death had been found. The researchers discovered that the DNGR-1 receptor on a type of immune cell called a dendritic cell mobilizes an immune response after coming across this abnormal cell death.
Dendritic cells act as messengers, alerting other types of immune cells to kill invaders, such as viruses and bacteria.
The researchers said tumors could also trigger this type of immune reaction because they often contain clusters of cells undergoing this type of cell death as they have a limited blood supply. Dr Caetano Sousa, lead author based at Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute, said: "After a 15-year hunt, we've identified the first 'danger receptor' - one which senses abnormal cell death and then triggers an immune response.
He said manipulating this system could be beneficial in treating cancer but also in other areas, such as preventing rejection in organ transplantation.
"There is a theory that some cancer-killing drugs kill tumor cells in such a way that triggers the immune system against them so they have a double whammy."
Dr Lesley Walker, director of information at Cancer Research UK, said: "The concept of using the body's immune system to fight cancer has been around for decades, but advances in recent years have made this field of research a very exciting one.