Alarm signal protects the body from cancer causing damage

01 December 2011

Scientists have found a way the body detects harmful toxins and destroys them before they cause widespread damage. 

A team from Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute (now part of the Francis Crick Institute)  and King's College London looked at the way damaging toxins caused by environmental factors such as tobacco smoke or UV light affect cells (epithelial cells) that line the surfaces of the body - such as the skin or gut.

By working with mouse skin cells, the researchers found the damaged cells display a stress molecule that stimulates nearby immune cells to destroy them. The scientists found the stress molecule also fires up another response that involves the whole of the body's immune system to clear up the toxins which caused the damage in the first place. The researchers think this response may stop the toxins from causing more widespread damage.

The scientists noticed this response was similar to the way the body deals with substances that cause allergies including pollen or peanuts. The research is published in Science.

Professor Adrian Hayday, based both at Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute and King's College London, said: "There has been a great amount of interest in immunotherapy - using the body's own defences to treat cancer - recently, but our understanding of how the immune response works to recognise and halt cancer growth has been limited.

Adrian Hayday

Adrian Hayday

"Our study suggests new and simple ways for monitoring a patient's anti-tumour responses during treatment allowing us to see if chemotherapy, for example, is helping or hindering the body's own response to tumours."

 

Study author Dr Jessica Strid, also at Cancer Research UK and  King's College London, said:

Jessica Strid

Jessica Strid, paper author

"The body uses many different pathways to deal with threats and damage and we only understand how they work individually.

"Our study offers a fresh perspective on how the body regulates its response to carcinogens, using the allergic response to remove them before they spread to the rest of the body."

Strid, J., et al. The intraepithelial T cell response to NKG2D-ligands links lymphoid stress surveillance to atopy. Science (2011)

  • Strid, J., et al. The intraepithelial T cell response to NKG2D-ligands links lymphoid stress surveillance to atopy. Science (2011)
  • Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute and King's College London are two of the academic partners behind The Francis Crick Institute
  • The Francis Crick Institute is due open in 2015. Its neighbours include the British Library and St Pancras International