White blood cells have proven to be the serial assassins of the immune system, moving quickly on to their next target once they’re released from a dying cancer cell’s grip.
Misty Jenkins, of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, has discovered that a T cell can only continue its killing spree once a targeted cancerous cell has signalled its imminent death and the T cell can unlock.
Misty’s research, which was supported by a $25,000 2013 L’Oréal Australia and New Zealand For Women in Science Fellowship, will give us a greater understanding of our immune system and open the way to better managing T cells to defeat disease.
“A T cell locks onto a cancer cell when its receptor matches a specific protein fragment. It’s a kiss of death,” she says. “The T cell then introduces toxic enzymes into the cancer cell, which kills it.”
Misty found that when T cells were genetically modified to lack the toxic enzymes, the killing process happened very slowly and the T cells did not detach and move on within the usual seven minutes.
She believes the T cell only moves on when the infected cell gives a signal of its imminent death, and she is now working to identify that signal.
Misty attended both Oxford and Cambridge universities following her PhD at the University of Melbourne. Now back in Melbourne, she’s a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) postdoctoral fellow in the Cancer Cell Death laboratory at the Peter Mac.