A nice system

nurse cell by Jing a Ling

Key gene ‘controls disease fight’:
[Via BBC News | Science/Nature | World Edition]

A master gene that helps mobilise the immune system to fight disease has been discovered by UK scientists.


Another in a series, I guess, of very misleading leads. These researchers did not discover this gene. A quick examination via Google finds papers from the early 90 describing this molecule. including one implicating the molecule in childhood leukemias.

And, naturally, this article hypes the research even more by saying it could be used to fight diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Maybe but all they have now is a mouse.

The BBC page does not provide a direct link to the article and only an abstract is available for free. Not wanting to spend $32 to read the article, I looked for something with a little more depth and found this nice write up from the NHS in England.

Ignore the headline, although they do put the words ‘Cancer killing gene’ in quotes so maybe that is a subtle dig at the hype. There is a lot more background on the gene and the system here. In fact, it not only has links to other news media articles, it also has a direct link to the paper. It really does represent something only the Web could provide, up to date scientific research, with links to the work to allow the reader to see the primary sources. I wish more of the MSM recognized that links are important.

Anyway, who ever wrote this up for the NHS did a great job. Just read the first 3 paragraphs and you know more about the gene and its impact, in perspective, to be both excited about the research yet understanding that it is still very early in any progress to a drug:

British scientists have identified the “key master gene that can kill cancer”, according to the Daily Mail, which says that the gene is the ‘masterswitch’ in the body’s battle against cancer. According to the newspaper, the key E4bp4 gene triggers the production of natural killer cells from stem cells and could be used to bolster our bodies’ defences. The researchers involved are reported to have stumbled across the gene while researching childhood leukaemia.

This exciting research is important for the field of immunology because researchers have characterised the factors involved in the development of natural killer cells. Natural killer cells are part of the immune system humans are born with (innate), and can act to destroy tumours and infected cells. It will be some time before the direct relevance of these findings to human immunity is clear, as this was a study in mice.

This discovery is an important step in the understanding of how the body may respond to tumours. However, any drug that can potentially bolster the production of these cells will need to be preceded by a great deal of further research and then many years of safety and efficacy testing.

First, not only have they found an important gene but they ‘stumbled’ on it while looking for something else. This happens so often in science, when we find out something really interesting while looking for something else. It is nice to see that recognized.

Then we find out why this work is important followed by the needed perspective: done in mice and a lot more research to find a drug. Compare to the beginning of the BBC post:

It causes stem cells in the blood to become disease-fighting “Natural Killer” (NK) immune cells.

It is hoped the discovery will lead to new ways to boost the body’s production of these frontline cells – potentially creating a new way to kill cancer.

The Nature Immunology study may also help development of new treatments for type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Not much meat there but lots of hype.

The NHS article goes into much more scientific detail than the BBC or other MSM sources and then ends with its own perspective. First, how important is the research:

The findings from this laboratory study are important in the field of immunology because scientists have discovered a crucial gene that switches on the development of the natural killer type of white blood cell. The natural killer cells are part of the innate immune system that defend the body in a non-specific way and are responsible for destroying tumour cells and cells that are infected with viruses.

Two sentences that explain why this is something to examine further. Then these two paragraphs which I wish every article would address: the possible inadequacies of the work as it stands now.

There are a number of issues to keep in mind when interpreting the results of this study, firstly that this is a study using animals so how the findings apply to the human body is not clear. More research will be needed to investigate this.

Equally, it is still unclear how the production of these natural killer cells can be enhanced. While some newspapers discuss the idea of a “drug that boosts natural killer cell numbers”, it is not apparent how this might actually work and such a development is likely to be some distance in the future. In order to potentially develop these findings into a treatment for cancer, there will first need to be further research into the action of the E4bp4 genes in humans and the technologies to enhance them in living systems, followed by further research if this work shows promise.

These are true for almost every bit of basic research. The model systems may not work in humans and we have no idea of what drugs will really work. But, because of work like this, the path to answer both of those questions is a little clearer.

I’m adding the NHS Behind the News page to my newsfeed. There are a lot of really useful and well written articles there.

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