A group of researchers found that the same protein complex that is known to promote cancer growth may also have the ability to fight off cancerous cells and stimulate anti-tumor growth.
Researchers at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida and the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital in China studied a protein complex known as "NF-kB," which controls gene expression, or turning genes "on" and "off." By looking at the role the protein complex played in lung cancer cells, researchers were able to identify the genes it regulates, known as a gene signature. These genes helped researchers indicate the level of activity of the protein complex itself.
And when scientists monitored the level of activity of the NF-kB in mouse lung cancer cells, they found that the protein can help promote the rejection of tumors. When the study was extended to 442 human tumor specimens, researchers found that high levels of NF-kB activity were associated with high levels of cancer-fighting T-cells.
Previous studies showed that NF-kB was also known to promote tumor growth. But Amer Beg, the lead author of the study, told U.S. News that in past studies, researchers did not regulate the protein in a way that would generate an immune response.
"Incorrect regulation of NF-kB has been linked to cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, septic shock, viral infection, and improper immune development," says a statement on the study.
Beg says that these findings may lead to new treatment options for those with advanced stages of cancer, as it may be able to stimulate an immune response.
The protein complex may be helpful in identifying patients who would benefit more from immunotherapy, a form of treatment that attempts to enhance the immune system while also destroying tumors. Immunotherapy typically only works well for patients who have some pre-existing immunities that can be stimulated, Beg says. But NF-kB can help in identifying patients who have such an "immune-permissive environment."
Another possible application of the finding is developing treatments that combine immunotherapy with cancer-fighting drugs.
"Everybody knows that immunotherapy by itself is not looking so well," Beg says. "The hunt is on for the best types of combination therapies."
Researchers believe that if they can use cancer drugs to activate the protein complex in tumors and combine it with immunotherapy, there will be a much better result for a much larger number of people.
Immunotherapy combined with an anti-cancer drug, Beg says, has "the best possibility of leading to cancer cures."