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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 00:02 GMT
Technique 'could boost immunity'
lab shot
Researchers managed to change key immune cells
Scientists believe they have found a way of genetically altering an immune system cell - paving the way for new cancer treatments.

Beefing up the immune system is one of the ways that doctors hope to be able to help the body to mount a defence against cancer.

However, it is difficult to find a way of specifically altering the genetic make-up of key immune cells called "antigen presenting cells".

These cells help pick out potential targets for an immune response - and tell other cells to launch an attack.

Immune cell

Researchers at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, decided to start before the antigen presenting cells had even been formed.

A type of cell called a blood stem cell is the building block for all the many different varieties of blood and immune system cells.

The team, led by Professor Linzhao Cheng, transferred a new gene into the blood stem cell - but programmed it so the change would only emerge if the cell turned into an antigen presenting cell.

UK success

When the cells were transplanted into mice, an average of 56% of the antigen presenting cells showed the genetic change.

Professor Cheng said: "The ability to deliver a gene in a stem cell and then have it expressed in one specific type of cell should provide a new way to achieve targeted gene therapy."

This study is interesting - it proves in principle that these changes can be made

Dr Paul Fairchild, Oxford University
His team will now look for gene modifications which could help improve anti-cancer vaccines, or which could do the opposite, and suppress the immune system to reduce the problem of transplant rejection.

Some UK teams are also attempting to modify antigen presenting cells.

At the Antigen Presenting Cell Laboratory at Oxford University, a team of researchers has managed to find other methods to produce large quantities of one type of modified antigen presenting cell.

Unlike the US team, they have achieved this without having to use a virus to make the change - which could make it potentially safer to use in treatment.

Dr Paul Fairchild, the lab's senior scientist, told BBC News Online that it would be some time before the technology could be fully harnessed in treatments.

He said: "There are a number of potential genetic targets which have been identified.

"This study is interesting - it proves in principle that these changes can be made.

"Now the hard work starts to find which genetic changes we need to make."

The study was published in the journal Blood.

See also:

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