Using cancer cells to kill cancer cells

Some scientists have found a new approach to treating cancer — at least one type of cancer, a form of leukemia. In this study, the researchers looked at Acute Myeloblastic Leukemia (AML). AML arises from immature granulocytes, blood cells that normally defend against bacterial attacks in the body, among other things.   The myeloblast (mī’ĕ-lō-blast) is a very immature type of granulocyte. While some are normally found on the bone marrow, when they start increasing in numbers and are found in the circulation, they produce leukemia.  As their number in the bone marrow increases, they start suppressing other cells that need to be growing and dividing in the marrow: platelet precursors, lymphocytes, monocytes, etc.  So the numbers of those cell types go down, often dramatically.

In the past, chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant has been a mainstay for treatment of AML, but those methods are not always successful.

The scientists in this group were working with a number of antibodies. Some of these antibodies could cause immature cells to transform into more mature cell forms.  Since myeloblasts are immature forms of granulocytes the idea was postulated that maybe one of these antibodies could make the myeloblasts “grow up” and be less harmful. As they were pursuing this path, they got some amazing results.

Doctor via Shutterstock

Doctor via Shutterstock

They applied the antibody to myeloblasts from a patient with AML. The blasts began to mature, but not into granulocytes, which would have been their normal path. Many of them turned into dendritic cells, cells important to the immune system. With continued application of antibody they changed again. They began to closely resemble natural killer (NK) cells. Normal NK cells police the body and, when they find something that doesn’t belong there like a cancer cell (or virus infected cells, etc.), they move up to the bandit cell, come into contact with it, penetrate it with microfibrils and kill it.

But the NK-type cells produced here wouldn’t attack just any foreign cell. They specifically hunted down their malignant twins.  They would search out and kill myeloblasts, the cells causing the AML. And these NK-type cells seem pretty good at what they’re doing. In one experiment, these NK-type cells killed 15% of myeloblasts in the sample in just 24 hours.

This research has essentially opened up a whole new field that sounds very promising. If this technique can be applied to humans, it may dramatically increase the survival rate in people with AML. Also, research will be conducted to see if this same technique can be used on other leukemias and on solid tumors, as well. If so, this could be a major breakthrough.

Of course, as with all early research, and this is very early, much more research needs to be done before it might be able to be applied to humans.

Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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