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Trinity scientists discover how cancers can hijack immune system

Cancers frequently exploit the wound-healing side of the immune system

Cervical cancer cells expressing a wound healing signal (green) in response to TRAIL stimulation. Photograph: Dr Conor Henry/Prof Seamus Martin/TCD

Scientists at Trinity College have discovered how certain cancers hijack the immune system for their benefit, tricking it into helping rather than harming them.

While most of us are aware that the immune system protects from infection, we may be less aware of the key role that cells of the immune system also play in co-ordinating the repair of damaged tissue.

This “wound-healing” aspect of the immune response stimulates growth of new cells within damaged tissue and brings extra nutrients and oxygen into the injured tissue.

However, cancers frequently exploit the wound-healing side of the immune system.

Cancers have been described as “wounds that do not heal” due to their ability to masquerade as damaged tissue to receive help from the immune system. But just how cancers switch on this wound-healing response is not well understood.

Now scientists from the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College, led by Smurfit professor of medical genetics Seamus Martin, have discovered that a molecule called TRAIL – which is frequently found in high concentrations in many cancers – can become “re-wired” in certain tumours to send an inflammatory “wound-healing” signal.

Ironically, TRAIL normally delivers a signal for cells to die, but the Trinity scientists found that this molecule can also send a wound-healing message from tumour cells.

The research, conducted by Trinity College research fellow Conor Henry, has just been published in the journal Molecular Cell.

“Understanding how cancers turn on the wound-healing response has been mysterious, so we are very excited to find that certain cancers exploit TRAIL for that purpose,” Prof Martin said.

“This suggests ways in which we can turn off this reaction in cancers that use TRAIL to hoodwink the immune system into helping rather than harming them.”