Researchers at the University of British Columbia have discovered how metastatic tumours can outsmart the body’s immune system, and have begun to reverse this process so that the immune system can detect cancer cells once again.

When cancer develops, in the early stages immune cells rush to the site to begin to fight it. However, when the cancer starts to spread throughout the body, the cancer cells become invisible to the immune system and the tumour can metastasise without being attacked by our natural defences.

The researchers have discovered that a protein called interleukin-33 (IL-33), which is present in primary tumours, triggers another protein complex called major histocompatibility complex (MHC) to activate. This tags the cancer cells and guides the immune system to destroy them.

As the cancer cells evolve, however, they might lose the ability to produce IL-33, allowing the cancer cells to spread throughout the body without alerting the immune system. This discovery could lead to new approaches to tackling cancer.

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