Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered a new function of a protein called Runx3. Their research suggests the protein can be manipulated to boost the immune system's defense against cancer.
The human immune system's primary foot soldier is the T cell. Scientists at the University of California San Diego found T cells in infected tissues and tumors were surprisingly similar. Experiments showed Runx3 dictates their presence.
Scientists suggest the protein can be used to encourage T cells to meet cancer on the front lines -- in the tissue where cancer and tumor growth is most likely to begin.
Scientists detailed their breakthrough in the journal Nature.
"At this time, we are seeing great promise in treating cancer stemming from approaches that exploit the immune system to target tumor cells and our work describes a new tool for directing the immune system into the right place where it can do its job," molecular biologist Ananda Goldrath said in a news release.
Scientists knew Runx3 played a role in developing immune cells, but the latest research suggests the protein can also give marching orders, encouraging the persistence of T cells in tissue where malignancies develop and grow slowly.
"We uncovered an unappreciated function for this molecule in setting up a frontline of defense in tissues throughout the body," said Goldrath. "It's really a repurposing of a protein used in development to regulate the functional properties of the immune system."
The latest findings suggest Runx3 programming could be coordinated with other immune boosting treatments to better target and attack cancer. The protein could also be programmed to enhance vaccines against cancer.