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Could a Pac-Man-Like Cell Gobble Up Mesothelioma Cancer Cells Some Day?

Cancer cellsMesothelioma is one of the most aggressive and challenging cancers to treat. The infected cells fight off standard cancer treatments and continue to grow and divide leaving doctors and patients frustrated at the inability to stop the rogue cells. Now, researchers say that they are working on building a Pac-Man-like artificial cell that can gobble up cancer cells.

The research team, led by Takanari Inoue, Ph.D., an associate professor of cell biology in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, has been focusing on a new type of immunotherapy that can turn normal, healthy cells into a cleanup crew and “eat” their dying neighbors.

“Our goal is to build artificial cells programmed to eat up dangerous junk in the body, which could be anything from bacteria to the amyloid-beta plaques that cause Alzheimer’s to the body’s own rogue cancer cells,” says Inoue in a Johns Hopkins press release announcing the research.

Ordinarily white blood cells, or macrophages and neutrophils, use a process called phagocytosis to identify and devour dying cells and other ‘junk,’ including bacteria. The researchers set out to determine the minimum “tools” cells need for this ingestion process. They started with a laboratory-grown HeLa cell which is not programmed for phaogocytosis. In simple terms, they then found receptors that would draw the dying cells to the HeLa cells, and eventually programmed the cells to engulf and swallow “dying cells readily.”

“We’ve shown it’s possible to endow ordinary cells with the power to do something unique: take on the role of a specialized macrophage,” Inoue says.

The researchers concluded that this technique “might be useful as part of a targeted, cell-based therapy in which unwanted cells with characteristic surface molecules could be rapidly consumed by engineered cells.”

Mesothelioma is incurable, and is diagnosed in close to 3,000 Americans each year. Researchers have had to continue to push the envelope with immunotherapy to find ways to utilize the body’s own immune system to target and destroy cancer cells. The aim of immunotherapy is to harness the strength of the immune system in a specifically focused attack on cancer cells, while avoiding the broader toxic effects of treatments that also attack healthy cells.

Inoue noted that much more research is needed to fully test and understand the process.

The study was published in the July 15 Science Signaling journal.

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Nancy Meredith is a blog and web content writer with more than 20 years of professional experience in the Information Technology industry. She has been writing about Mesothelioma for 7 years. Follow Nancy on Google+

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