Cancer-killing cells controlled by epigenetic process, new study shows

Natural killer (NK) cells in the human body can kill and contain viruses and cancerous tumors, and a new study from the University of Southern California (USC) describes for the first time how those cells can be manipulated by epigenetics. The discovery, detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, paves the way for developing more effective cancer drugs.

"Natural killer cells are very attractive targets for immunotherapy because they are able to kill ," said Si-Yi Chen, M.D., Ph.D., a faculty member of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and senior author of the study. "While scientists all around the world are working on developing new drugs using NK cells, none of the drugs in development focuses on epigenetic regulation of the cells. Our study describes how an epigenetic process involving the enzyme MYSM1 plays a critical role in the development of ."

Epigenetics involve biochemical changes in the body that directly affect DNA, turning some genes on and turning others off. MYSM1 is an enzyme in the body's immune system that turns genes on and off by modifying proteins called histones embedded in DNA.

Through a series of experiments in mice, Chen and his colleagues demonstrate that MYSM1 is required for natural killer cells to mature and function properly.

"We found that MYSM1 creates access to proteins that enhance and, ultimately, the maturation of natural killer cells themselves," said Vijayalakshmi Nandakumar, a Ph.D. student at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the study's first author. "To date, there are no elaborate reports linking an epigenetic phenomenon to natural killer cell development. More importantly, unlike conventional therapies, NK cell-based therapies have shown to be more effective against metastasis. We believe targeting this pathway could be a viable option for future immunotherapies."

More information: Nandakumar, V., Chou, Y.C., Zang, L., Huang, X.F., & Chen, S.Y. (2013). Epigenetic control of NK cell maturation by histone H2A deubiquitinase MYSM1. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition, 1-11. Published online Sept. 23, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1308888110

Related Stories

Static killers?

Sep 06, 2013

Mammals contain cells whose primary function is to kill other cells in the body. The so-called Natural Killer (NK) cells are highly important in defending our bodies against viruses or even cancer. Scientists ...

Cocktail boosts immune cells in fighting cancer

Dec 06, 2012

Natural killer cells, as part of the body´s immune system, can effectively fight cancer. Unfortunately, they quickly lose their aggressiveness and hence are unable to reject solid tumors. Scientists from the German Cancer ...

Overactive immune response blocks itself

Jul 26, 2013

As part of the innate immune system natural killer cells (NK cells) play an important role in immune responses. For a long time they have been known as the first line of defense in the fight against infectious ...

Between B cells and T cells

Jul 23, 2013

Mature cells develop through a number of immature stages. During this process, they must remember the specialization they are committed to. For immune system B cells, Rudolf Grosschedl of the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology ...

Recommended for you

Cause of ageing remains elusive

20 hours ago

A report by Chinese researchers in the journal Nature a few months ago was a small sensation: they appeared to have found the cause for why organisms age. An international team of scientists, headed by the ...

Newly discovered bacterial defence mechanism in the lungs

21 hours ago

A new study from Karolinska Institutet presents a previously unknown immunological mechanism that protects us against bacterial infections in the lungs. The study is being published in the American Journal of Respiratory an ...

User comments