New research suggests that many cancer cells are equipped with a kind of suicide pill: a protein on their surfaces that gives them the ability to send an “eat me” signal to immune cells.
The challenge now, the researchers say, is to figure out how to coax cancer cells into emitting the signal rather than a dangerous “don’t eat me” signal.
A study published online Dec. 22 in Science Translational Medicine reports that the cells send out the enticing “eat me” signal by displaying the protein calreticulin. But another molecule, called CD47, allows most cancer cells to avoid destruction by sending the opposite signal: “Don’t eat me.”
In earlier research, Stanford University School of Medicine scientists found that an antibody that blocks CD47 — turning off the signal — could help fight cancer, but mysteries remained.
The next step is to understand how calreticulin works. “We want to know how it contributes to the disease process and what is happening in the cell that causes the protein to move to the cell surface,” Dr. Ravindra Majeti, an assistant professor of hematology and study co-principal investigator, said in the release.
“Any of these mechanisms offer potential new ways to treat the disease by interfering with those processes,” Majeti said.