In a significant discovery, researchers in Australia have, for the first time, identified the gene responsible for hiding cancer cells within the bowel, making it difficult for immune cells to recognize and combat them. The lead researcher of the study said that this opens the door to developing more effective immune-based treatments for bowel cancer patients.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute in Australia and published in the American journal Science Immunology, revealed that more than 15,000 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, making it the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the country. Over 1,700 (1 in 10) of those diagnosed are young Australians under the age of 50, and the incidence rate is on the rise.
According to the study, there is an urgent need to discover more effective treatments and improve the diagnosis process for bowel cancer, especially for early-onset bowel cancer patients (those aged 25-49).
The study pointed out that Australians born in 1990 and later have a significantly higher risk of developing bowel cancer compared to those born in 1950, and the treatment outcomes for younger bowel cancer patients are often less responsive because they typically get diagnosed at a later stage of the disease.
Immunotherapy is one of the most promising new cancer treatments, involving boosting the ability of immune cells within the body to recognize and eliminate cancer cells. However, less than 10 percent of bowel cancer patients respond to current immunotherapies.
What Did the Study Reveal?
The lead researcher of the study, Dr. Lisa Milkie, who heads the Mucosal Immunology and Cancer Immunotherapy Laboratory at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, explained the significance of this research breakthrough, saying:
“Our research revealed that the gene known as TCF-1 limits the immune cells’ ability to combat bowel cancer in the colon. This gene is responsible for hiding the cancer and reducing the immune cells’ ability to recognize and combat it. By targeting this gene, the chances of treating bowel cancer will increase as the immune cells become more adept at recognizing and combating it. We are very excited about this new research discovery, which will help us develop more targeted and effective immune-based treatments with fewer side effects for bowel cancer patients.”
What Are Anti-Cancer Immune Cells?
Dr. Lisa Milkie explained:
During our research, we discovered that a crucial group of immune cells in the colon, known as gamma-delta T cells, are essential for preventing bowel cancer. Gamma-delta T cells act as front-line defenders in the colon, and what makes these immune cells extraordinary is that they patrol continuously and protect the lining cells of the colon, acting as warriors against potential cancer threats. When we analyzed samples from bowel cancer patients, we found that those who had more gamma-delta T cells present in their tumors had better treatment outcomes and a higher chance of survival. The colon contains trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, collectively known as the microbiome, and while some bacteria are linked to disease, others are crucial for the immune system.