The mechanism behind how a protein 'assassin' called perforin punches holes in, and kills, rogue cells in our bodies has been discovered in a new study.
"Perforin is our body's weapon of cleansing and death," Nature quoted project leader Prof James Whisstock from Monash University, as saying.
"It breaks into cells that have been hijacked by viruses or turned into cancer cells and allows toxic enzymes in, to destroy the cell from within. Without it our immune system can't destroy these cells. Now we know how it works, we can start to fine tune it to fight cancer, malaria and diabetes," he said.
The new research confirmed that the important parts of the perforin molecule are quite similar to those in toxins deployed by bacteria such as anthrax, listeria and streptococcus.
If perforin isn't working properly the body can't fight infected cells. And there is evidence from mouse studies that defective perforin leads to an upsurge in malignancy, particularly leukaemia.
Perforin is also the culprit when the wrong cells are marked for elimination, either in autoimmune disease conditions, such as early onset diabetes, or in tissue rejection following bone marrow transplantation.
The next step is finding ways to boost perforin for more effective cancer protection and therapy for acute diseases such as cerebral malaria.
The study is published today in the science journal Nature.