In a chance observation at the Stanford University School of Medicine, scientists have been able to reprogram aggressive leukaemia cells into fully functional and harmless immune cells.
Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, is a severe blood cancer characterised by the overproduction of white blood cells A.K.A lymphoblasts. The vast amount of dividing lymphoblasts interfere with production of other cell types, such as red blood cells, wreaking havoc. However, the ability to reprogram these cells may give fresh hope in the battle.
The observation previously mentioned, initially occurred when cells were taken from a patient suffering with “B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia”. These cells deteriorated quickly in culture dishes and therefore the scientists were throwing everything at them to help them survive. Scott McCellan, a lead author on the paper, described the transformation as the cancer cells changed both in size and shape, modifying themselves to resemble an immune cell called a macrophage.
Macrophages are the sentinels of the immune system, patrolling tissues for debris, foreign substances or generally anything that is out of place so they can engulf and digest, to protect the body from harm.
Bad news for the remaining lymphoblasts
There is hope that, because these macrophages were reprogrammed from cancerous cells they will carry chemical signals that are able to identify remaining cancer cells, improving effectiveness of a subsequent immune attack. Therefore, the previously dangerous lymphoblasts are both neutralised, and potentially able to assist in fighting against the remaining non-mature, cancerous lymphoblasts. As for other cancers, current therapies are not particularly pleasant, using combinations of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and steroids which frequently leads to devastating repercussions for the patient. Therefore, there is an urgency for development of a drug to mimic the cell culture effects of the protein combination to mature lymphoblasts into disease-fighting, chaos-cleaning macrophages.