People who've never had leukemia show signs of immune battles that fought it off

Far more people have cells that briefly behave in cancerous ways then ever actually develop cancer. Most of the time, those cancerous cells are destroyed before they can do any real damage, and scientists can see evidence of this by looking at echoes of past battles with the immune system. If you've had chicken pox, some of the immune cells that fought off that disease will stick around, ready to more-quickly mount a response against a repeat attack. The same seems to be true with certain kinds of cancers. Scientists found immune cells in healthy people that appear to be primed to attack leukemia — leftover remnants of the body's previous, successful skirmishes.

Notable Replies

  1. I'm sure knowing this about myself would keep me up at night.

    "Hey, remember all those times you almost had leukemia?"

  2. snig says:

    It's been known for a while that the immune system/DNA repair system is working against potentially cancerous processes, and the vast majority of time is effective in preventing it from progressing. I always felt it neat that most of the time we're our own cure for cancer.

  3. Yes, see

    Basically they have to extract the relevant antigens from your own cancerous cells (or make the antibodies in the lab some other way customized for each patient), then use them to coerce your immune system to produce antibodies against them even though they would normally be marked as belonging to your own body. Because of that last part, it's trickier than a normal vaccine against foreign entities.

    I didn't end up becoming an immunologist, but I spent a couple of summers working on leukemia immunotherapy research. Fascinating stuff.

  4. Yes - absolutely fascinating! I had just been reading that at John Hopkins, there has been a lot of work going on with TGF-beta and its role in creating allergic type responses. Just so happens, TGF-beta is also involved in collagen synthesis. What got me nd some other people I know, is the insane rate of allergy and chemical sensitivities amongst people with heritable connective tissue disorders. Looks like there may be a link there.

    And, we get cancer, just like other people. everything I've seen points strongly to an immune-modulated process of some sort. And why not? We already know that some cancers are related to HPV. We know that people with AIDS get opportunistic cancers. It's not a question of whether there is a link between the immune system and cancer, but only a question of exactly how it works. Other recent work at UCSF points to an ability to stop a cancer from metastacizing by interrupting the inflammatory process it thrives on. I see that as another leg in the same process - infections being fought are a source of inflammation, as are various chemical compounds. Sometimes, that inflammatory response is local, sometimes systemic. But the process itself is somewhat universal. If we can interrupt that process by any means at all, we kill off the cancer's natural growth pattern. So there are two possible entry points there - prevention via immunization, and interruption via therapy for the inflammatory process (es).

    I'm not at all worried to think that we all get cancerous or pre-cancerous cells that get killed off. Rather, I'm extremely hopeful about where present research efforts are headed, It may take some time to work the details out - but as a cancer patient myself, I see any approach which ends the vile and barbaric practice of poisoning people with radiation and chemotherapies (which can both be carcinogenic, themselves!) as wonderful progress!

    [It's not an intellectual pastime with me - it's real life or death stuff. But you know what? It doesn't do the least bit of good to stay up nights over imagined occurrences or actual occurrences. Either way, you just lose sleep and solve nothing. Instead of wondering whether the glass is really half full or half empty, you should just be saying, "Wow! Check it out! I've got a glass!"]

  5. Yeah, the professor I was working with always said we've all got a handful or precancerous, and probably cancerous, cells in us all the time. What's remarkkable is that our immune system is good enough to keep them in check for 60-90 years in almost all cases.

Continue the discussion

8 more replies