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Cancer Killers

Harnessing the lethal power of the immune system

September 14, 2015 | Leigh MacMillan

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Illustration by Getty Images/Jay Coneyl

T cells. Killer T cells.

They’re on the prowl inside you right now, these “hit men” of the immune system. Their surfaces are armed with receptors that have the dossiers of their “marks”—virus-infected cells, cancer cells or other damaged cells.

When they recognize a target, they have the power to kill. But they aren’t always effective.

“It’s been speculated for a long time that one of the central tenets of the immune system is to sense cancer and eradicate it when it arises,” says Marco Davila, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. “In some respects you might say that the development of cancer is a failure of the immune system.”

Spurring the immune system to kill tumor cells is the goal of cancer immunotherapy, a field that has seen recent advances with the approval of new drugs that extend life for patients with advanced melanoma, lung cancer and some leukemias.

At the heart of all these advances are T cells, Davila says.

“The most recent discoveries in cancer immunotherapy have really demonstrated that the T cell is a highly effective cancer treating agent,” Davila says. “What we need to do now as cancer immunologists is figure out ways to manipulate these cells to further enhance their ability to kill tumor cells in a safe manner.”

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