Harnessing T cell stemness can improve immunotherapy

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Research suggests a way to enhance the effectiveness of immunotherapies for cancer treatment. It is increasing T cells’ exposure to potassium or mimicking the effects of high potassium could make cancer immunotherapies more effective. There is one-way tumors may continue to grow despite the presence of cancer-killing immune cells.

Scientists from the Center for Cancer Research (CCR) at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) conducted this research. NCI is a part of National Institutes of Health, USA. It is an Intramural program. The study appears in the journal Science.

Dying cancer cells release the chemical potassium, which can reach high levels in some tumors. Elevated potassium causes T cells to maintain a stem-cell-like quality that is closely tied to their ability to eliminate cancer during immunotherapy.

What did the researchers observe?

growing T cells under conditions of high potassium also preserve the “stemness” of the T cells. This means that, in the tumor, the stem-cell-like T cells have the ability to replicate themselves, but they aren’t able to mature into killer immune cells. By keeping T cells in this state, the tumors can avoid the attack and continue to grow. This could explain how cancer could grow despite the presence of T cells that would seemingly be able to fight cancer.

What did they find?

The researchers next explored preserving T cells’ stemness with high potassium levels for therapeutic use. They found that T cells grown in the presence of extra potassium and transplanted into mice shrank primary and metastatic melanoma tumors better than T cells were grown in normal levels of potassium.

They also found that, when exposed to a high concentration of potassium, both T cells isolated from patient tumors as well as genetically engineered anticancer T cells had higher levels of markers associated with continued growth and improved immunotherapy outcomes.

What do these findings suggest?

Finally, the research team demonstrated that when they used specific drugs to mimic potassium’s effects on T cells in mice, this improved the T cells’ ability to continue to grow and eliminate tumors. This means that such a drug could potentially be used to induce stemness in T cells as a strategy to enhance cancer immunotherapies.

This research has paved ways for finding new methodologies to improve cancer immunotherapy. Immunotherapy can be more effective in increasing the stiffness of T cells related to cancer. This study explains the mechanism of immunotherapies for cancer. This has enabled scientists to improve the working efficiency of cancer immunotherapies.




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Areeba Hussain
The author is a Medical Microbiologist and healthcare writer. She is a post-graduate of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. She covers all content on health and wellness including weight loss, nutrition, and general health.


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