Groundbreaking research has found that colon cancer tumors hide from the public eye by ‘disguising’ themselves as stem cells to evade detection by the immune system.
The study answers a question that has puzzled doctors for decades – why the body ignores the disease, which kills around 46 people every day in the UK.
It is hoped that the discovery will one day enable a treatment that reverses or prevents the process and allows the immune system to “see” and destroy colon cancer when it occurs.
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The intestine is lined by different layers of cells. The top layer consists of epithelial cells, which play an essential role in digesting food and absorbing nutrients. Colon cancer also starts here.
This region is “patrolled” by immune cells called T-cells, which attack any threats, such as bacteria or small tumors. However, by masquerading as stem cells, cancer cells crowd out T cells by suggesting “nothing to see here.”
“Normally, immune cells keep everything as it should be, patrolling the gut like security guards, fighting any harmful bacteria and keeping the gut healthy,” said Dr. Seth Coffelt of Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute and University of Glasgow, who led the research.
“However, when cells in the gut become cancerous, they fire these ‘security guards’ and any methods by which these immune cells communicate with each other and coordinate an immune response are no longer implemented.
“Cancer doesn’t want immune cells to recognize it as a threat and manipulate the immune cells – you don’t want T cells to accidentally kill stem cells or it’s game over.”
‘[This means] They don’t see the threat and just walk by – leaving the cancer to do its damage.”
The team analyzed tissue samples donated by colorectal cancer patients and were able to determine the specific mechanism that led to this cancer “blindness”.
The research, funded by Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and Wellcome, answers a question that has long puzzled doctors – and offers hope for future treatments to reverse the mechanism.
Colorectal cancer: the symptoms
- Changes in your stool, e.g. B. softer stools, diarrhea or constipation that are unusual for you
- You need to poop more or less often than usual
- blood in your stool (which may appear red or black)
- bleeding from your butt
- Often feeling like throwing up (even after just using the bathroom)
- stomach pain
- I feel very tired for no reason
- Lose weight without trying
See your GP if you have had colon cancer symptoms for three weeks or more
Read more here
Source: The NHS
“Our discovery means that if we find a way to artificially challenge the ‘blinded’ T cells with a drug to allow the T cells to ‘see’ the cancer again, we could find a new effective way to treat colon cancer ‘ he told Coffelt.
The study was published in Cancer Immunology Research.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the UK.
This month marks the first anniversary of the death of podcaster and activist Dame Deborah James, who used her colon cancer journey to inspire others to get screened if they have symptoms.
Her Bowelbabe Fund, launched in May 2022, has already raised more than £11million for research into early detection and treatment.
In her final message, Dame Deborah said: “Find a life worth enjoying, take risks, love dearly, have no regrets and always, always have rebellious hope.”
“And finally, check your poop — it could save your life.”
MORE: What are the symptoms of colon cancer?
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