These natural killer cells could be harnessed to hunt down and kill cancers that have spread in the body.
The team, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, also found natural killer cells were critical to the body's rejection of donor bone marrow transplants and in the runaway immune response during toxic shock syndrome.
The discoveries came after the team showed that a protein called MCL-1 was crucial for survival of natural killer cells, in research published today in the journal Nature Communications
. The discovery will help to determine how natural killer cells can be manipulated to fight cancers and other disorders.
Dr Nick Huntington, Dr Priyanka Sathe and Ms Rebecca Delconte from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute said MCL-1 could be a target for boosting or depleting natural killer cell populations to treat disease. Natural killer cells are immune predators, scouring the body in search of foreign invaders such as viruses, and sensing changes in our own cells that are associated with cancer.