A naturally occurring molecule and a component of the immune system that can successfully target and kill cancer cells can also encourage immunity against cancer resurgence, finds a new study by a team of scientists that included NYU London Professor Valerie Wells.

The research, which appears in the British Journal of Cancer, marks a potential step forward from current approaches, which involve killing cells by using chemotherapeutics and other agents that can be harmful and have uncertain outcomes.

Wells, Livio Mallucci, who conducted the work at King’s College London, and their colleagues discovered that β-galactoside-binding protein (βGBP), a naturally occurring molecule produced by immune cells, can non-specifically target cancer cells, make them undergo cell death, and, through a stress response pathway, make the cancer cells visible to the immune system to prompt an anti-cancer immune response that would secure protection against recurrences.

“As a natural component of the anti-cancer immune network, unlike pharmacological inducers which carry associated toxicity and uncertainty, βGBP has no harmful properties,” explains Wells, who has been teaching Principles of Biology I and II at NYU London since 2002. “It is a physiological molecule and as such already suitable, ideally, for clinical trials.”

Professor Valerie Wells, NYU London

Professor Valerie Wells, NYU London

Major developments in anti-cancer therapies have taken place over the last decade, but because only a subset of patients responds to treatments, scientists have emphasized the need for further development. Crucially, they note, there is a need to induce the immune system to ensure long-term protection against the recurrence of cancer.

“Translation of βGBP to the clinic could open a new therapeutic opportunity which safely combines direct killing of cancer cells and the stimulation of the immune system against recurrences, a significant step forward in the management of cancer,” says Mallucci.