A cancer-causing protein can also help fight tumours it causes, according to a new study by scientists at Tel Aviv University (TAU) in Israel.
The researchers have shown that an oncogene called Ras-which can cause normal cells to be come cancerous when mutated or expressed in high concentrations-has the power to heal as well as harm.
Ph.D. student Oded Rechavi and his fellow researchers at the university's Department of Neurobiology have found that Ras has the ability to transfer from cancer cells into immune cells - such as T-cells - a transfer that may be the key to creating new drugs to fight cancerous tumours.
Revealing their findings in the journal Public Library of Science One and a recent review about such cell-to-cell transferring of proteins in FEBS Letters, the researchers say that the idea that proteins can transfer between cells challenges the original theory of the cell.
"All the energy flow, metabolism, and biochemistry of life is supposed to happen within the boundaries of an individual cell. Here we show that when cells in the immune system interact with other cells, proteins are exchanged without being secreted from the cell, and act in both the immune and original cells alike," Rechavi said.
"When Ras transfers from one cell to another, it strengthens the immune system. The immune cell that adopts the mutated Ras gets activated and reacts against the cancerous cell that donated the Ras. This does not happen for advanced tumors, but if we could control the movement of Ras, we would have a better understanding of how immune cells react against cancer," he added.
This, according to the researcher, might provide the scientific basis for an entirely new class of cancer drugs.
The TAU researchers are trying to discover the mechanisms whereby the Ras protein is transferred, and their initial findings seem to be promising.
Rechavi is investigating a current theory that the membranes of the cells temporarily fuse together. What is certain, however, is that once T-cells acquire mutated Ras, they are able to generate clones with the ability to respond against this specific threat.
"When immune cells scan their targets they bind to their targets. When immune cells acquire normal Ras, nothing happens. But when they acquire mutated Ras from a potential tumor, it starts a cascade. This results in the production of cytokines that help the immune system and act against the cancer," he said.
According to him, understanding the nature of this interaction between mutated Ras and immune T-cells can unlock mysteries about the nature of proteins and cells.
He has revealed that the next step will be to identify other proteins that, like Ras, are able to transfer outside of their cell of origin.