The immune cells called natural killer cells hunt and destroy foreign cells in the body, including cancer cells that spread and form tumors. A team led by Dr. Nick Huntington (photo), from Australia’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s Molecular Immunology Division, has found, for the first time, how the “switch” that turns on these natural killer cells works. The team found that the switch, a protein called ID2, functions by allowing natural killer cells to become responsive to growth factors in the blood. Dr. Huntington said a growth factor called IL-15 keeps natural killer cells active and alive -- if it is taken away these cells die. The findings were published in the January 19, 2016 issue of Immunity. The article is titled “The Helix-Loop-Helix Protein ID2 Governs NK Cell Fate by Tuning Their Sensitivity to Interleukin-15.” "This is an exciting discovery because previous research has shown that these natural killer cells are really potent in killing tumors: breast and colon cancer and melanoma cells," Dr. Huntington said. "We knew this switch -- or master regulator -- was essential for the natural killer cell development, but we had no idea how this worked." Dr. Huntington said the research allowed scientists to think of new strategies to regulate the activity of natural killer cells by targeting the switch and these strategies could lead to new treatments. "If we can give an advantage to natural killer cells by boosting their activity or numbers or survival in the body then we can try to win that fight against cancer," he said. Natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell prevalent in the body, deliver lethal toxic granules into cells that have become cancerous or infected, causing them to rupture and die. Dr.
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