Cancer is caused by genetic mutations that build up in cells. The mutations can lead to abnormal proteins and cells that divide wildly. Those proteins can also help trigger production of T cells, which kill tumor cells.
The most common childhood cancer is acute lymphoblastic leukemia. ALL has few mutations compared to lung cancer and other adult tumors. Some scientists had thought ALL had so few mutations that the immune system might not recognize the cancer cells.
St. Jude scientists found that was not the case.
It’s true that adult tumors often have more mutations. But the specialized T cells only recognize a small percentage of the mutations in adult tumors. Young ALL patients have fewer mutations, but the T cells identify more than two-thirds of them.
“This suggests the immune system can be used more effectively to treat childhood leukemia, especially in patients whose cancer returns following treatment,” said Paul Thomas, PhD, of the St. Jude Department of Immunology.
Science Translational Medicine carried a report on this work.