What a breath of fresh air! A good old friend of mine, who I met while in graduate school and is now living in Mexico city has been working on a couple of papers that he is submitting to some English language journals. I’ve only read one of them so far – it’s an interesting review of work that suggests that tumors actively co-opt processes of the immune system to their own advantage. His spoken English is quite good, but it’s another thing altogether to write well for a scientific publication. Lucky for me, I guess, because it gives me a way to be involved.
It is well established that the immune system functions to prevent tumor formation known as immunosurveillance. This is pretty consistent with the basic role of defending the self against any non-self target it encounters. If you’re unfamiliar with immunology and want one thing to learn, that’s it: The immune system is there to recognize a black and white world of self vs non-self. The details are complicated, but it’s fairly well worked out that through a series of positive and negative selection events you can train your immune cells to be tolerant of you (self), but reactive against anything new (non-self).
With respect to cancer, it’s important to recognize that these cells start out as self and are ignored by the immune system, but they change in a way that they are not acting the way they should. The problem for the immune system is that these changes typically just mean that the cells are acting abnormally, but they don’t necessarily look foreign. Despite this, we know that animals that lack a functional immune system will succumb to tumors at higher frequency earlier in life than those with competent immunity.
My friend’s article extends this relationship beyond immunosurvellience and suggests that the tumor cells undergo a selection process by the immune system that will eliminate weaker cells, leaving only cells that either escape the notice of the immune system entirely or are extraordinarily resistant to attacks. Further, he describes that the remaining cells will often co-opt signals of the immune system to advance their own function and survival.
I look forward to finishing up this paper and hope to be able to point you toward a journal that it is published in sometime in the near future. Until then, it’s so refreshing to think about immunology again. I miss it.