Molecule in Immune System Could Help Treat Skin Cancer

By Chelsea Whyte on July 10, 2012 7:35 PM EDT

t cell
T cells fight against bacteria, but new research shows they may be able to ward off cancer as well. (Photo: Creative Commons: NAIAD/NIH)

Sometimes exciting scientific findings happen on accident. Researchers studying T cells that help fight against bacterial infections have found that the same warrior cells can protect the body against some kinds of cancer.

In observations of mice missing the genes responsible for the creation of an immune cell called T helper cell 17 (TH17), researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital found that these mice had significant resistance to melanoma tumor growth.

The finding, published in the journal Nature Medicine, suggests that blocking the TH17 pathway could limit tumor growth. They also found that the mice expressed high levels of interleukin-9, which is created by T helper cell 9 (TH9).

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So, they treate mice with melanoma with TH9 and found that the treatment produced an anti-tumor effect in the mice, giving them a strong resistance to melanoma growth.  

"Immunotherapy of cancer is coming of age, and there have been exciting recent results in patients with melanoma treated with drugs that stimulate the immune system," said study author Thomas Kupper. "We hope that our results will also translate to the treatment of melanoma patients, but much work still needs to be done."

And the discovery doesn't just stop with mice. The researchers were also able to detect TH9 cells in normal human blood and skin, and found that TH9 cells were either absent or present in low levels in human melanoma, suggesting that interleukin-9 and TH9 could play a role in future melanoma therapies.

"We wanted to be sure that this wasn't just something unique to mice," Kupper told Fox News.  "So we were able to show that... clearly these cells are present in humans.  We also went to look at patients with advanced melanoma.  In their lesions there were very low levels of interleukin-9.  So if we can increase those levels, we might see the same thing we saw in those [mouse] models."

Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2012, there will be more than 76,000 new cases of melanoma in the United States and 9,180 deaths. Melanoma is curable if recognized and treated early.

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